Perfume Review- Serge Lutens Rousse

Rousse in the 75 ml bell jar.

Rousse in the 75 ml bell jar.

It can be a foolish thing to enter into a perfume with set expectations when it is a Serge Lutens. Not only do you never know where he’s going to take you, but you also never know the damn notes in the perfume. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised to have an unexpected ride with Rousse, but, nevertheless, I am. I went into the test knowing Rousse was a cinnamon perfume that is consistently compared to the aroma of Red Hots, the spicy, fiery cinnamon candy. Somehow, I expected to think of famous, strong redheads who would probably have epitomized Rousse, whether Elizabeth I or Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame. Nope. None of it. Instead, I had what seems to be a slightly atypical experience, which probably explains why I can’t decide if I think Rousse is a strange fragrance, or a pleasant, but underwhelming, one. In the end, I think I’ll lump the two things together: Rousse is a slightly strange fragrance with some really pretty parts — but I wouldn’t be disappointed if I never smelled it again.    

The old, discontinued 50 ml bottle of Rousse. Ad source: Lutens Facebook page.

The old, discontinued 50 ml bottle of Rousse. Ad source: Lutens Facebook page.

Rousse was created by Christopher Sheldrake for Serge Lutens and released in 2007 as one of the regular Import line that is available worldwide. Later, perhaps because of the public’s seemingly lackluster response to the fragrance, Rousse was pulled from regular distribution, discontinued in its small 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle size, and limited to the Paris Exclusives bell jar line. (That said, some of the old, cheaper bottles are still available for purchase at discounted rates online.) I’ve noticed the Bell Jar fragrances are often the more complicated, thorny, or unusual fragrances that aren’t quite as approachable or popular as the regular line with its Chergui, Ambre SultanUn Bois Vanillé, citrus florals, and the like. Rousse isn’t complicated or difficult, by any means, but it seems to have suffered from the critical response. And, as you will see, Rousse doesn’t always turn out as expected on people’s skin.

Rousse‘s description on the Lutens website is neither lyrically evocative or particularly helpful. It merely talks about auburn hair that is “like copper igniting in the heart of a wood. This scent is like a hint of cinnamon on the skin changes colours.” A more detailed description of Rousse comes from Ozmoz which not only quotes part of the original 2007 press release, but which also provides the important detail that Rousse is as much about cinnamon tree wood, as it is about the spice:

Cinnamon tree bark. Source: indiamart.com

Cinnamon tree bark. Source: indiamart.com

Rousse is an elegant, sparkling, sweet and sensual skin scent. Serge Lutens’ inspiration for Rousse came from childhood memories of grandma baking and making jam. Rousse highlights cinnamon, ‘spicy, almost prickly, as though it were composed of miniscule starbursts’. A spice that’s also a tree bark that ‘remains singular, though it shades from beige to reddish-brown’: ‘an imaginary cinnamon (…) that wants to hold onto an image of the color of her hair, weaving it into a spice that is so often overlooked’.

The mystery notes, as compiled from Fragrantica, Now Smell This, and elsewhere, seem to include:

mandarin, cinnamon, cinnamon wood, cloves, spices, floral & aromatic notes, fruit, precious woods, amber, musk and vanilla.

One of those generalized, undefined categories on the list ends up being quite important because, on my skin, Rousse is not a fragrance that is simply about fiery Red Hot cinnamon sweets or cinnamon spice. Far from it.

Red Hots cinnamon candy.

Red Hots cinnamon candy.

Rousse opens first and foremost with white floral notes that have a very peculiar, grey, soapy tinge, and which are mixed with a bitter, pungent, slightly medicinal note of cloves. Quickly, they are joined by orange tones, dry spices, and dry woods. Both the combination of notes, and the way that their slightly acrid, sharp overtones burn my nose momentarily makes me think of Lubin‘s Idole in eau de toilette form. It takes about a minute for the cinnamon in Rousse to appear but, when it does, it bursts forth with such intensity that Rousse is briefly transformed into the expected Red Hots candies, and very little else. The fiery sweets sit atop a somewhat thin, lightly boozy element mixed with that strange, dry, grey-white note that appeared earlier. I’ll simply call it a “greige” note, because that’s what it feels like, especially as there is the quiet whisper of something soapy underneath.

Linden blossom. Source: www.selfsufficientish.com

Linden blossom. Source: http://www.selfsufficientish.com

The Red Hots blast remains for all of about three minutes, and then, Rousse returns to smelling primarily of that surprising floral bouquet. I struggled with it at first. Magnolia? Linden? Magnolia and linden? Less than 15 minutes into Rousse’s development, it definitely felt like linden. The note is white, honeyed, and similar to honeysuckle, but with a sprinkling of lemon blossoms and a soapy, clean undertone. Linden is Rousse’s primary note on my skin for a good portion of its beginning, and I find that to be incredibly surprising.

Ten minutes in, Rousse is a swirl of lightly spiced florals. There is honeyed linden with its soapy edge, flickers of mandarin orange in the far distance, and a quiet touch of cinnamon red hots, all over a base of somewhat abstract, dry woods. The cinnamon has receded from its initial power at the opening to something much more balanced. It melts into the linden, feeling quite indistinct in any concrete, substantial form, and merely adding a lightly spicy kick to the honeyed flower. The mandarin orange note in the back is quite disappointing. It’s muted, mild, almost evanescent except as an occasional pop-up. It never feels very juicy or even candied but, rather, something dry. It’s hard to tell because it’s wholly lacking in both character and weight. Much more noticeable, however, is the slow stirrings of a light musk that starts to swirl around the linden.

Magnolia. Source: Kathy Clark via FineArtAmerica.com

Magnolia. Source: Kathy Clark via FineArtAmerica.com

Rousse doesn’t twist and turn very much, especially as compared to most Lutens fragrances. At the end of the first hour, it is still primarily a floral scent on my skin. However, there is a sudden creaminess that adds richness and a velvety undertone to the flowers, and, once again, I think of magnolia as a counterpart to the linden. That impression continues as Rousse develops, and I really wonder if magnolia is one of the hidden notes. Others have detected a similar buttery floral note, but think it’s orris butter. On my skin, the note lacks the powdery nuances of orris, but who knows. Whatever it is, the creamy flower is strongly intertwined with the linden, thereby impacting the latter and changing it as a result. The linden still feels very honeyed and tinged by lemon blossom, but its rather soapy undertone weakens substantially.

Yet, Rousse never feels like a purely floral fragrance, thanks to the dried, somewhat smoky, wood notes in the base. Oddly enough, however, the cinnamon seems to have retreated to just a bare shadow of its former self, and now skulks around in the background. On top of it all, the whole fragrance has dropped in sillage to hover just a scant inch above the skin. Rousse never had powerful projection to begin with, and Ozmoz describes it as a “skin scent,” so it’s clearly meant to be quiet and discreet in nature.

Around the 90 minute mark, Rousse is a magnolia-linden concoction on my skin with a subtle fruity nuance, flickers of dried orange, abstract spices, and amorphous dry woods. The latter smells a bit smoky, a little bit bitter, and just barely tinged by cinnamon and cedar. To be honest, the wood element is both odd and unusual, and for some reason, calls to mind, again, Idole with its ebony wood and what Luca Turin described as grey flotsam driftwood. Something in Rousse’s woodsy combination feels quite similar, though the accord is too muted, too hidden, and too overshadowed by the increasingly powerful fruity magnolia for me to figure out why. It’s definitely far more than mere cedar, to my nose.

Source: dreamstime.com

Source: dreamstime.com

What’s even odder is that, around the 90-minute mark, there is a definite impression of yeasty dough circling around the edges of the perfume. Rousse smells a lot like highly perfumed, sweet dough with a floral-fruity, magnolia-linden twist, and just the faintest pinch of cinnamon, all atop a bitter, dry woods base. It’s actually pleasant — in fact, quite enjoyable in a strange way — but I can’t get past my confusion. I’ll be honest, if it wasn’t for the initial blast of Red Hot cinnamon candy in Rousse’s opening minutes, I would think I had a mislabeled perfume sample. Surrender to Chance doesn’t normally make those sorts of mistakes, but what I’m smelling on my arm really is nothing like what I had expected or read about. Where is the cinnamon? Why is this so damn floral? So many people say that Rousse is all about the cinnamon, but not on me. The only thing that really fits other people’s descriptions of the fragrance is Rousse’s dry, dusty murkiness in the background, which is something touched upon in Now Smell Thisreview of the scent.

Catherine Jeltes Painting, "Modern Brown Abstract Painting WinterScape." Etsy Store, GalleryZooArt, linked within. (Click on photo.)

Catherine Jeltes Painting, “Modern Brown Abstract Painting WinterScape.” Etsy Store, GalleryZooArt, linked within. (Click on photo.)

As time passes, Rousse gets creamier, softer, and sweeter. At the end of the second hour, it’s a beige swirl of velvety, fruity magnolia, with dribbles of honey and a pinch of dry spices atop some dry, “greige” woods. But, a bare thirty-minutes later, Rousse suddenly becomes a wholly abstract creamy fragrance that is infused with vanilla, amorphous white notes that only hint at something floral, and a nebulous sense of dry, cinnamon woods. Not long after, about 4.25 hours into the perfume’s development, Rousse is reduced primarily to a creamy, delicious, vanilla custard. There is still that woody, dry element barely flecked by dusty cinnamon, but it’s so muted as to feel quite intangible at times.

And Rousse remains that way until its final moments, when it’s nothing more than an abstract, almost gourmand-like sweetness with a slightly vanillic undertone and the quietest whisper of dryness. All in all, Rousse lasted just under 6 hours on my skin, with a good portion of that time spent as a skin scent. On Fragrantica, a few people put Rousse’s longevity at around 5 hours, with one noting only 4 hours. The majority listed the sillage as “moderate,” with the next greatest number voting for “soft.” Clearly, it’s not a monster of either longevity or projection.

I liked Rousse — once I put aside what I expected and just sat back for the creamy, floral ride. I’m not judging it for failing to live up to expectations, because skin chemistry is a wonky thing and I realise my experience was quite atypical. However, what I did smell didn’t knock my socks off, and I certainly don’t think it’s a very special fragrance, though it’s a perfectly pleasant scent that actually has some lovely moments. Still, for a fragrance that is so expensive and hard to access as a Paris Bell Jar exclusive, Rousse doesn’t seem worth either the time or money to obtain it.

I get the sense that reviewers who did have the proper, full, cinnamon Rousse experience weren’t very blown away. It’s as clear as day that Bois de Jasmin wasn’t, finding Rousse “nice and pretty,” but bluntly calling it both “a disappointment” and a “let-down.” On Victoria, Rousse was initially “[l]ipstick and candied lady apples” with a powdery violet note; later, a woody note based on cedar whose “dense sweetness melts away in the heart of the composition, although the dry and somewhat cloying effect reminiscent of powdered sugar remains vivid.” In the drydown, Rousse was “delicate powdery notes tinged with cinnamon, violet and vetiver.” On second thought, she didn’t seem to have the typical Rousse cinnamon experience, either….

Luca Turin did, however, and he might as well have snorted his disdain. His two-star review in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide dismisses Rousse in a single sentence, essentially calling it a hot mess:

Another Lutens from the période bizarre: a mulled-wine accord made with clove and cinnamon mixed with an intense rooty-anisic (carrot-seed?) note, adding up to one fine mess.

In contrast, Robin at Now Smell This, thought Rousse was the best of the new Serge Lutens releases of that time (back in 2007). Though she notes that “[m]any reviewers so far seem to find it dull,” she enjoyed its sparse nature, writing:

cinnamon is the star of the show here. The opening is lively and sweet, and reminiscent of cinnamon Red Hots (and if you like Red Hots, see also Comme des Garçons Harissa). The dry down is much drier and milder, and the cinnamon takes on first a dusty, later a creamy-powdery quality as it blends with dark woods, iris and whatever else is in there (the fruits and flowers are indistinct). There is a touch of amber and vanilla to keep it from being quite bone dry, and like yesterday’s Mandarine Mandarin, it has a kind of murky-dusky, not-quite-dark-not-quite-bright quality.

I wouldn’t call it a transparent scent, but it is considerably less embellished than the “standard” Serge Lutens style, if such a thing exists. I would call it spare, even restrained, and it will not, like some in the line, continue to morph on your skin over a period of hours. Many reviewers so far seem to find it dull, but I have liked it more and more on each wearing — I like spare and restrained — and it is easily my favorite of the recent Serge Lutens releases.

Equally positive was the review at the Perfume Posse, though it’s all about apple pie there, right down to its “pastry crust (soft, buttery, dusty)” along with “the cinnamon, a couple of cloves – and of course none too sweet apples.” The pie sits atop a woody base that the reviewer, Leopoldo, found to be sharply reminiscent of Lubin‘s Idole. I’m relieved to see it’s not just me, especially when Perfume-Smellin’ Things reached the same conclusion:

The smell of the spicy, powdery bark, of the resinous wood is all around you, like a warm cocoon. The top accord features a sweet, vaguely fruity and candied note (what I take to be mandarins), cinnamon and woods. As the scent progresses, it loses practically all of its initial sweetness and acquires a slightly powdery, slightly “buttery” violet note, as well as a brighter, spicier floral smell of carnation, which complements the cinnamon very nicely. The drydown is dark and balsamic, with plenty of amber and some vanilla to soften and round the composition. This is a melancholy, contemplative scent, an adult’s day-dream of an enchanted world.

Like Leopoldo, I can’t help but notice the resemblance between the new Lutens fragrance and Idole de Lubin. In fact, for me, the two are rather too similar. I smell Idole in the spicy candiedness of the top notes of Rousse and in the resinous drydown. Rousse is woodier, drier, much less “boozy” and has a slight powdery undertone (the powder of the grated bark), but the two are still very alike, on my skin. Because of that, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been there, done that, got a bottle. 

On me, the Idole resemblance was brief and limited to the opening stage, while the rest of my experience was obviously completely different from all the reviews noted up above.

Clearly, this is a fragrance that varies in how it manifests itself. It usually does not need to said that all perfume journeys depend on individual skin chemistry, but Rousse seems to trigger a wider disparity than most. Look at what people have detected: from my magnolia-linden, yeasty dough, and vanilla custard experience; to Bois de Jasmin’s powdery violets, cedar and vetiver; Luca Turin’s anise carrot-seed; NST’s Red Hot cinnamon candies; Perfume-Smellin’ Things carnations, violets, and Lubin’s Idole; and Perfume Posse’s apple pie, doughy crust, and more Idole!

At least there is some consistency over at Fragrantica. There, an overwhelming majority of the reviews talk about the cinnamon, and almost nothing but. However, even on Fragrantica, there are some sharply divergent experiences. One commentator talked about how Rousse was primarily a “soap cloud” on her skin, another said “it’s more cloves and amber than cinnamon resting on a sweet floral citrus bed,” and a third talked about how she experienced loads of orris butter and carnation. A handful mentioned a yeasty, doughy quality underlying the fragrance. A tiny portion talked about how the cloves were too overpowering and bitter for them, creating a medicinal start that turned them off the fragrance entirely.

Source: 123rf.com

Source: 123rf.com

Nonetheless, for almost everyone else, Rousse is almost entirely cinnamon with just a hint of cloves and some dried woods from start to finish. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what to make of that narrow focus. Commentators seem split down the middle with half finding Rousse to be wonderfully delicious, sexy, mysterious, or cozy, while the other half thinks it’s too much damn cinnamon, in addition to being dull, and/or linear. One positive review consistently makes me laugh out loud; the commentator said Rousse was the only fragrance she liked to wear to bed because “its dullness just turns me off and instantly transports into the land of dreams!” (Emphasis added.) 

I don’t know whether to recommend Rousse to you, simply because I don’t know what notes will show up. As a whole, Rousse seems to be a dry, woody, cinnamon fragrance, but, clearly, there are some enormous exceptions to that rule. Still, if you adore cinnamon with a passion, it may be worth your while to get a sample and see what happens. 

DETAILS:
Sizes, Cost, & Availability: Rousse is an eau de parfum that is part of the Serge Lutens “European Exclusives” line, which means it is available only in the larger 2.5 oz/75 ml Bell Jar size, though you can occasionally find the discontinued 50 ml bottle on rare occasions. Rousse retails for $300 or €140 for a 75 ml/2.5 oz bottle. You can buy Rousse directly from the U.S. Serge Lutens website or from the International one
Discount Sales: I was initially overjoyed to find the cheaper, discontinued 1.7 oz/50 ml size bottle of Rousse available at Aedes for $120, but then I saw that it was out of stock and I doubt they’ll ever get more of it. However, I’m a little dogged and OCD in my hunts, so I found two vendors who sell Rousse in the cheaper, small, discontinued bottle. One is in Kuwait and seems to be a big perfume vendor called Universal Perfumes. It’s selling Rousse in the 1.7 oz bottle for $109.99 with $6.95 global shipping. Another is a U.S. site called Bay Perfumes who sells the 50 ml bottle for $98.40 with free domestic shipping on all orders over $85. So much better than $300, even if it is in a smaller size, no? Update: a reader of the blog, Alicia, sent me a link to a Spanish online perfume site called Parfumeria Sabina that is selling the 50 ml bottle of Rousse for €62.76, which is a fantastic price, and there seems to be free shipping, though I assume it’s only within the EU.
In the U.S.: Rousse is available in the more expensive $300 bell jar format 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: If you really want the Bell Jar but at a cheaper price, 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 Rousse is considerably cheaper at €140 from the French Lutens website 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 Rousse from Surrender to Chance starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. I actually ordered mine as part of a Four Piece Export Sampler Set (even though Rousse is actually a non-export fragrance), where you can choose 4 Lutens Regular Line fragrances for a starting price of $18.99 for a 1 ml vial (as opposed to the usual 1/2 ml starting size). 

Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Serge Noire: Janus & The Cloven Beast

Serge Lutens describes Serge Noire as a phoenix rising from the ashes. Phoenix Rising 2Perhaps. I see it more as a cloven beast, with “cloven” referring not only to the cloves that make up such a large part of its character but also to the traditional definition of the word: split in two. To me, Serge Noire is Janus, that ancient Roman god with two faces and the god of beginnings and ends. In common, modern parlance, you might say that Serge Noire is slightly bi-polar.

A good starting point in discussing Serge Noire is the Lutens’ press release. As provided by BoisdeJasmin, it states:

The ether of ashes… A phoenix, the mythical bird of legend burns at the height of its splendour before emerging triumphant, reborn from the ashes in a choreography of flame, conjuring the shapes of yesterday in a dance of ashes. The swirls of oriental grey enrich the twilight with depth and intensity while windswept memories hint at the beauty of transformation. An ode to everlasting beauty under cover of night’s rich plumage.

The Lutens website omits the poetry, and simply says:

nothing can capture this scent’s spirit better than subtle “snapshots” from the past, like a forgotten glove lying on an antique chair.

Incense stirred by the smell of burnt wood.

The full, complete notes for Serge Noire are hard to pinpoint with any uniform, agreed-upon accuracy. The consensus on the basic elements seems to be: cloves, cinnamon, patchouli, incense and “dark woods.” However, Perfume Shrine also referenced “elemi,” a spicy, peppery and citrusy resin. Fragrantica gives the notes as: “patchouli, cinnamon, amber, woody notes, incense, clove, spices and ebony wood.” And, yet, most think that there must be some cumin in there too. I also see repeated references to grey ash, labdanum/cistus, benzoin and castoreum. (Castoreum essentially comes a beaver’s anal sacs and has been used in such famous fragrances as Shalimar, Jicky, Cuir de Russie, Antaeus, Amouage Epic and more. See, the Glossary for a full definition and more details.) I’ve even read a few comments that mention gunpowder too!

I was a bit terrified to try out Serge Noire because of the sheer forcefulness of the negative reviews. This is a fragrance that seems to engender extremely intense reviews, but the positive ones on places like Basenotes are nowhere as vehemently extreme as the negative ones. (If you’re ever bored, I suggest reading some of the comments. At the very least, they’re really amusing.) To give you an idea of some of the Basenotes comments:

  • “Sacré bleu, Serge! Why did you market this horror?”
  • “[W]hy did I buy this? just like chewing tin foil”
  • “It starts out like a punch in the face and a savage cauterizing of the ol’factory with several murderous spices. Then ATTACK OF THE CLOVES and suddenly your feet are raised high above your head as you are hoisted in the dental chair preparing for root canal treatment. This surely must be somebody’s idea of a practical joke.”
  • “Absolutely, incredibly and horribly foul. One of the most disgusting things I have ever smelled in my life.”
  • “Pure evil!”

An even more alarming review came from NST where the perfume was compared to a potpourri of ingredients whose recipe included, just in small part, the following:

  • 50 pieces of charred cassia bark (the bark should be blackened and retain only the most rancid traces of oil and odor);
  • Ten 1/8-inch slices of Swiss cheese;
  • Chain-gang T-shirt bits (with scissors, cut out and save the stained, armpit areas (bits) of 25 sweaty T-shirts that have been worn at least 10 hours on a 90-100 degree day;
  • One large box of moth balls, roasted (roast on a grill in the open air while wearing a HEPA-filter mask); and
  • 10 handfuls of singed hair (… for pre-singed locks, visit the worstsalon in your area and obtain fall-out from recently botched dye jobs, hair-straightening sessions, permanents, etc.).

Finally, pour the contents of three bottles of Angostura bitters and two bottles of grenadine into the bucket, top off with more salt, and let the mixture ‘rest’ in the (covered) bucket — in a dark and dank place — under lock and key — for at least two weeks.

To be fair, there are a lot of extremely passionate, gushing, postive reviews for Serge Noire, with its fans calling it the best Lutens fragance “in years” and with others applauding the genius of the “nose” behind its creation, the very famous Christopher Sheldrake. Some of those — like Perfume Shrine‘s review — wax so poetically, they are almost other-worldly. In fact, the latter review seemed much more like existentialist tract on philosophy and poetry than an assessment of mere perfume.

Nonetheless, I’ve found the horror outweights the poetry when it comes to reactions. There are also constant references to “BO” (body odor) and sweat which I found alarminng. But when Smelly Thoughts — a blogger who adores niche fragrances that are somewhat avant-garde or extreme — called it “hideous” just a few days ago, I really paled a little. So, it’s not surprising that I put it on with great trepidation. And I must say, I hardly find it to be “pure evil.”

I loved the opening spray of Serge Noire, but I wonder how much of my reaction stemmed from enormous relief rather than actual love. My initial notes actually read like this: “CLOVES! No sweat, thank god! Ooops… sweat.” As someone who cooks extensively, I have issues with cumin and, to me, it often evokes an impression of dirty, sweaty socks with the rancid, fetid body odor of someone who has never understood the joys of soap and water. Serge Noire definitely evoked “BO.” But, to my surprise, there was just a fleeting note of sweat in the opening salvo. Instead, I was strongly reminded of the smell of a leather saddle, slightly damp and with a touch of the horse or rider’s sweat. There was also a fascinating mix of camphor to counter the sweetness of the clove and what almost seemed like star anise. There is a faint touch of something medicinal that vaguely brings to mind Tiger’s Balm muscle rub, but it’s a sweet note as compared to the sharply metallic, cold, screechy medicinal accord in some oud fragrances. The camphor is not a surprise;Sheldrake has used it before in fragrances for Serge Lutens. Tubereuse Criminelle is perhaps the most well-known for that accord but there, the camphor mixes with a green floral scent, not with something as sweet as cloves and cinnamon.

I was so enchanted by the warmth of the cloves that I actually added another two sprays (though small in size) to my other arm. The cloves are a bit surprising in their expression on my skin; they’re not sharp but deeper, warmer and more well-rounded than I had expected. Some of the Lutens fragrances can be a bit cacophonous in their opening but Serge Lutens surprises me by being much tamer than the ferocious, hideous beast of the reviews.

I was really enjoying the fragrance thus far and it made me feel rather Christmas-y in some ways. Yet, the strongest and most constant memory that it evoked was Estée Lauder’s legendary Cinnabar, that famous 70s cousin to YSL’s Opium. The cloves in Serge Noire are, on my skin, much sharper than the more cinnamon-predominant Cinnabar, but they definitely share similarities to my mind and not solely because they are powerhouse scents centered around cinnamon and cloves. No, there is definitely a slightly retro feel to Serge Noire, though it’s a modern take on retro with the cinnamon.

On MakeupAlley, one commentator said they smelled “deadly hot pepper” but I don’t see it. Another said that she had a very strong impressed of ketchup mixed with a spicy BO scent. I definitely agree on the ketchup, but it’s a very vague, tenuous and fleeting impression, and it’s really due to the cloves and patchouli. Others reference the frankincense but to me, in the first two hours, it’s more patchouli. If it is frankincense that creates that peppery, smoky, dirty black scent, then it’s a very different type of frankincense than the one in Chanel’s Coromandel. (Reviewed here.) No, I think it’s more patchouli than frankincense, though Perfume Shrine (linked up above) seems to ascribe the peppery, spicy notes to a resin called “elemi.”

Either way, the linear nature of the fragrance in the early hours is a slight disappointment. The heart of cloves, cinnamon and camphor is just too strong of a constant thread. Yes, there is incense and patchouli, but it’s hard to separate them at times. Serge Noire is an extremely well-blended fragrance — so much so that the patchouli, cloves, cinnamon, and incense blend together in an extremely harmonious whole. I would have preferred something that morphed much more. And it does, later, change a little but not by much.

I thought Serge Noire was a very warm fragrance which is why reviews referencing its cold, “austere” nature were a little confusing at first glance. Austere? Is it the incense? Perfume Shrine’s review noted a definite and almost overwhelming impression of old, slightly dusky, byzantine Orthodox churches. That was my feeling for Chanel’s Coromandel, but not for Serge Noire. Others have said it’s the holiest of all holy incense fragrances, but I don’t agree with that either because it would seem to imply that Serge Noire is primarily an incense fragrance. I think it’s primarily a clove one. Which brings me to another point: cinnamon. There is definitely cinnamon here but it’s true presence comes later. To me, cinnamon is a much milder, softer, gentler and more feminine scent than cloves which is hot, not merely warm. It’s sharper, dirtier, sometimes slightly more acrid or astringent, but always more forceful.

Starting on the second hour, another note starts to rear its head. It’s the smell I had dreaded upon initially reading reviews for the perfume. It’s the smell of sweat and body odor. If this were a horse race, the clove chestnut that had led the pack, followed closely by the cinnamon sorrel, have now faded from the leader spot. They’re being edged out by a faint nose by the black patchouli stallion and its incense twin. However, coming up from the rear, is the sweaty horse whose saddle is slick with its earthy nature. And the dark woods all around the racetrack are starting to gently sway in the breeze, as if to participate in the events before it.

The award-winning, incredibly brilliant expert, Elena Vosnaki, at Perfume Shrine has a polar opposite impression:

Initially dry and spartan with the flinty, camphoreous aspect of gun powder comparable to Essence of John Galliano for Diptyque, ashes to ashes and snuffed out candles, Serge Noire by Lutens assaults the senses with the intense austerity of real frankincense and elemi. The impression is beautifully ascetic, hermetic, like an anchorite who has dwelled in a cave up in the rough mountains with only the stars as his companion in the darkest pitch of the night: the “noire” part is meditatively devoid of any ornamentation, eclipsing any pretence of frivolous prettification. The surprising transparency is evocative of the Japanese Kodo ritual rather than the denser cloud of Avignon. Those who are unitiated to the wonders of Lutens might coil away with trepidation and apprehension at this point, but much like the alarming mentholated overture of Tubéreuse Criminelle, this subsides eventually, although never quiting the scene completely.

And yet behind the caustic and mineral masculinity, a hopeful ascent of a feminine trail of lightly vanillic, ambery benzoin and sweet spice is slowly, imperceptibly rising after half an hour; like a subtly heaving bosom draped with Japanese garments or the curvaceous calligraphy of thick black ink on gaufre paper of ivory or creamy skin. It is then when cistus labdanum provides an erotic hint of sophisticated elegance in Serge Noire while the emergence of sweet spice, a touch of cinnamon, gives a burnished quality of black that is slowly bleeding into grey.

The ashen ballet in the flames, the swirls of oriental grey sing an ode to everlasting beauty, beauty under the cover of night’s rich plumage.

Perfume may be subjective, but there are few more respected experts in the perfume world than Elena Vosnaki, so her impressions of Serge Noire make me wonder why I’m getting such a different vibe. To my huge relief, Perfume Posse resolved my dilemma and made me realise that we’re BOTH right: “it just has a lot of facets that go in and out – dust, warmth, cool incense, woods.” It is coldly austere, but also red hot. (Actually, “red hots,” the cinnamon candies, are a big note in the perfume’s dry down.) It’s all incense (or, for Grain de musc, “a sizzling succession of resins”), or it’s dental chairs of camphor and stale body sweat.

In short, Serge Noire is a bit schizophrenic. It is simultaneously exactly like my review, and like that of the Perfume Shrine. Hot and dusty, or austere, cold and full of the greyJanus ashes of a dying fire — it is both things at once. Or, to go back to Janus, it wears two faces. Remember all that Lutens PR and the seemingly over-the-top, marketing flights of fancy? Well, I actually get it now. The phoenix rises from the dusty, cold ashes of death, reborn as a fiery, powerful, red-hot swirl of light and warmth, before Phoenix Risingflying off above the woods and into the cold night. It not only true, but it’s actually is pretty genius how the marketing so captured what seems to be a very intentional and deliberate ethos behind this perfume. So intentional that it reportedly took ten long years to create this scent’s contradictory nature, a scent that is Serge Lutens’ own personal favorite.

For all of Serge Noir’s vociferous opening, it definitely quietens down after about two hours. And four hours in, it’s very close to the skin and almost…. well, I wouldn’t say “subtle” but it’s definitely been tamed. It’s quiet amber and spice with the frankincense or patchouli just barely shimmering in the light. It’s cinnamon and resin. And sweat.

I did mention the rise of the sweat factor, didn’t I? Well, it becomes quite prominent in the dry-down, though I should emphasize again that the perfume is extremely close to the skin at this point. Still, after about five or six hours, I would catch a faint but definite smell of body odor. I’d been doing other things, forgotten about the perfume (yes, that actually is possible at this point) and, for a fleeting moment, thought to myself, “God, is that me?”

I like Serge Noire a lot more than I had expected to and, indeed, found the opening quite enchanting. But, after some reflection, that body odor element combines with a few other things to make this a bottle I wouldn’t buy. (If given to me, however, I’d certainly wear it on occasion. I think….)  It’s a fascinating fragrance and, on me, certainly wasn’t as “hideous,” “evil,” “horrific” and venomous as the critical reviews had led me to expect. If you’re a perfume junkie with a curious streak, I would definitely recommend buying a small vial for $3.99 at Surrender to Chance just to see what all the fuss is about. If you’re a fan of cinnamon and clove, I’d advise the same. And, honestly, you may really like it; there are certainly plenty of people who do. For everyone else, however — particularly those of a less inquisitive, bold or fool-hardy nature, or those who like the “fresh, clean” scents — I would recommend staying far, far away.

Details:
Cost: The perfume comes only in one formula, Parfum Haute Concentration, and can be purchased on the Serge Lutens website for $140 for a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle. It’s also available at other retailers, like Barney’s or Luckyscent.
Sillage: Enormous at first, before fading in the second hour and then becoming close to the skin around the fourth. But, as always, this is on me and my body consumes perfume.
Longevity: Very long lasting for a Serge Lutens fragrance, in my opinion. My prior experiences have been extremely short in duration. On me, all in all, this lasted about 5.5 hours. On others, the reports are for much longer.