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

Styrax resin via

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


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


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

Dried fenugreek leaves via

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.



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.

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 Profile – Part II: Perfumes, His Inspiration & The Search for Identity

In Part I of this two-part series, we looked at the life of the visionary who is Serge Lutens, a lonely man, born in war, unwanted by many in his family from the time of his birth, whose very existence was considered to be “a problem,” but who went on to revolutionize the worlds of fashion, beauty, photography, and perfumery. Now, in Part II, we’ll talk about his philosophy and approach to perfumery, as well as the sources of his inspiration. We’ll address the issue of inaccessibility and exclusivity, and his views on such issues as whether perfumes are aphrodisiacs, what he thinks about fragrances being unisex, and how his creations are ultimately about the search for identity. (You can also turn to my exclusive interview with Serge Lutens himself if you are interested in learning more about the man.)

Photo: Marco Guerra, taken at Serge Lutens' Marrakesh villa.

Photo: Marco Guerra, taken at Serge Lutens’ Marrakesh villa.


Like every artist, Serge Lutens reveals a little about himself in each of his creations. For example, Tubereuse Criminelle shows his love for Baudelaire (who is my favorite poet as well), while De Profundis reveals, depending on your interpretation, either a spiritual appreciation for the Psalms or his enjoyment of Oscar Wilde. Yet, Serge Lutens’ intellectualism is clearly drawn to the darker things in life. Baudelaire, after all, is known for Les Fleurs du Mal, a compilation of poems about death, sex, decay, hedonistic excess, and finding beauty in the darker parts of human existence.

Serge-Lutens ad

Serge Lutens photo and ad for Shiseido.

De Profundis is an extension of the same theme, finding beauty in death. In a telling bit of symbolism that would have Freud salivating, Serge Lutens’ strange backstory for the fragrance includes the line: “Clearly, Death is a Woman.” Oh dear. The rest of the story, as provided by Fragrantica, isn’t any cheerier:

When death steals into our midst, its breath flutters through the black crepe of mourning, nips at funeral wreaths and crucifixes, and ripples through the gladiola, chrysanthemums and dahlias.
If they end up in garlands in the Holy Land or the Galapagos Islands or on flower floats at the Annual Nice Carnival, so much the better!
What if the hearse were taking the deceased, surrounded by abundant flourish, to a final resting place in France, and leading altar boys, priest, undertaker, beadle and gravediggers to some sort of celebration where they could indulge gleefully in vice? Now that would be divine!

In French, the words beauty, war, religion, fear, life and death are all feminine, while challenge, combat, art, love, courage, suicide and vertigo remain within the realm of the masculine.

Clearly, Death is a Woman. Her absence imposes a strange state of widowhood. Yet beauty cannot reach fulfilment without crime.

Hard as it may be to believe, De Profundis’ backstory is (in my opinion) almost joyful, relatively speaking, as compared to that of La Fille de Berlin. Contrary to some people’s belief, that fragrance has nothing to do with Marlene Dietrich or the decadent excesses of Weimar Germany. When I was writing my review right before Valentine’s Day, and during my research, I stumbled upon a YouTube video in which Serge Lutens read the story behind the fragrance. I also found a brief interview he gave to the New York Times. The two things made abundantly clear that La Fille de Berlin was focused on the struggles of a German woman or women in Soviet-occupied, post-war Berlin. It is a story that is filled with implications of rape and, even, perhaps murder, to the point that I can’t really bear the perfume itself, even to this day.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who is this man?!” Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, the bleak backstory about the beauty of Death for De Profundis, and now, rape by Soviet occupiers, the transformation “of murder into a masterpiece,” and a woman’s lips covered by “the blood of Siegfried”?

Now, however, with all the things which I have learnt and which are discussed in Part I of this series, now, I get it. It’s about survival through the very worst of human suffering, through the greatest of all pain, even through the most traumatic aspects of war. It’s about the triumph of survival. And, ultimately, it’s about his triumph, and that of his mother (with her own wartime experiences) as well.

This ability to take the wounds of the past and see them as something more positive is reflected in his comments to The Independent in the interview discussed in Part I:

In one breath Lutens states, “You have to create your own happiness, we are the key to our own happiness,” while in the next he says, “It’s very dangerous to believe in such a cliché”. What he means, of course, is that happiness should not be confused with material wealth, beauty or success. “Even if society thinks you’re a mistake, you need to come to terms with it,” he says without sadness. “Maybe be happy about it, rejoice. Sing it as a song, clothe it, perfume it and close it to yourself.”

Serge Lutens has certainly clothed his past in perfume, and used it as a source of happiness. Yet, you may be surprised to learn that he does not actually see himself as a perfumer at all. According to the FAQ section of his website, he sees himself merely as a storyteller whose fairytales or fables are expressed through flowers and wood.

It is a process that takes time, and one whose inspiration often lies at the junction of “scent and memory.” He elaborated on both issues for The Independent:

“Sometimes it takes 12-17 years [to create a new perfume],” he says. “Sometimes it takes one year – that is the minimum – and then I will say that’s it. Then I’m not interested any more, I’ve said what I had to say.”

Source: Serge Lutens website.

Source: Serge Lutens website.

Although the inspiration for each creation comes from a different source, Lutens believes that through his work he is “trying to determine an identity, find a new language”. He shares his philosophy of scent and memory that underpins all his work: “It is an exercise of the memory, of your sensitivity. By the time you turn seven, this is what we call in French the reasonable age, you are going to, so to speak, record 750,000 odours in a box. Your nose is not made by these fragrances, but is there to assess whether you like, or you love, or you hate. These odours are going to create an interlace of paths going in all directions. From these odours you’re going to smell millions more, and only say ‘I love’ when you recognise something, not discover something. What you can recognise is nothing else but yourself. So around this [identity] I am trying to make the perfume recognisable. If I am using wood I want the perfume to smell like wood.”

Indeed, wood marks the beginning of Lutens’ fragrance journey. In the past he has attributed his first trip to Marrakech in 1968 as his moment of epiphany. At a small wood-workers’ studio in the souk he found a piece of cedar, “a quite attractive and a captivating type of wood; tasty, very sweet but also musky”. So overwhelmed was he by the scent that Lutens knew he had to make a perfume from it.

The impact of Morocco on Lutens went far beyond the mere appreciation for cedar. The country, its history, and its culture have become the source of much of his perfume inspiration. A good chunk of the Lutens line is oriental, after all, with clear references to the Middle East. Yet, Morocco has also become something more. It’s become this very solitary, lonely man’s sanctuary, his peaceful haven, and the place where he purposefully goes into self-imposed exile for much of the year. In my research into Lutens’ life, I stumbled upon a detailed photo series of his stunning, elaborate villa in Marrakesh, and, honestly, if it were my home, I’d probably never leave either!

The site, Kontraplan, features a photo-series called Casbah Confidential that shows Serge Lutens’ hideaway. I was so completely staggered by the sight of various rooms, I decided to include a few of them below. In order to give full credit to the site, all photos have the Kontraplan link embedded within, so clicking on them will take you to their article:

It’s quite something, isn’t it? Can you blame me for straying from the issue of perfumery? And can you imagine living in such Oriental opulence?! (On a side note, I wouldn’t be surprised if that militaristic room played some inspirational role in his development of either Sarrasins or Cuir Mauresque!) But we should return to the topic of actual perfumery.

In the FAQ section of his website, Serge Lutens shares a few of his thoughts on everything from the question of whether perfume can be an aphrodisiac, the issue of “unisex” in perfumery, and the purpose of fragrance. Please accept my apologies in advance for the wonkiness in the formatting, as the Lutens code and WordPress’ system seemed to be at war for much of the time. (And HTML coding is not my thing!)

  • What is your current philosophy with regard to perfume?
    • Perfume resides at the very heart of us. It is a means of self-expression. It is the dot on our “I”, a way of contemplating ourselves and sensing who we really are. It is also, in some ways, a weapon which seduces more by consequence than design. Perfume exists in the first person.
  • Do you think that perfume can have an aphrodisiac effect on the people around us? What makes a perfume seductive?
    • To be precise, there’s no such thing as an aphrodisiac perfume only aphrodisiac people. Wearing perfume doesn’t make you seductive. Being seductive is the result of being alive; being loved for who we are is what is important and not trying to be someone else!
  • What is your opinion of unisex perfumes?
    • Ask the perfume what sex it is. Who knows if an oak is male or female, or whether a rose is a he or a she? A watch is made for telling the time, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter whether it’s large or small, so long as you can read the face clearly so that you’re on time for a date! Are there CDs for men and CDs for women?! Absurd! Perfume is a product aimed at the senses not a particular gender.
  • What are your favourite perfumes? Are they the most successful ones? 
    • The only favourite I have is the one I’m working on at any given time. It’s impossible to choose. Some of them marked the start of a new period, such as Féminité du bois which introduced the theme of “identity”, or Ambre sultan, which was the point of departure for my Arab period. Those two perfumes obviously made an impact but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re just as important in this respect as Serge noire or De profundis. They create short circuits and express emotions through fragrance. They serve as reference points or “repères” in French (notice how that word contains the word “père” or father). What interests me is going further, not into the perfume, but deeper into myself, exploring my innermost depths to extract darkness from light, and make it just as visible. [Emphasis added.]
  • What perfumes do you hate? What ones do you wear and why?
    • Serge Lutens Cuir MauresqueIf I hate a perfume, it is only because of the person wearing it, whom I either can’t stand or who makes me feel that we inhabit different worlds and that it would be impossible for us to find any common ground! I could love the most ordinary or revolting perfume if it were worn by someone I found attractive! Personally, I rarely wear perfume and, when I do – and I do so advisedly – I wear Cuir mauresque, applied liberally so you can tell what I’m wearing. I go for this one as much because of its name as because of its fragrance, which is a leathery scent, like Cordoba leather tanned over acacia. [Emphasis added.]
Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. (Website link embedded within photo.)

Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. (Website link embedded within photo.)

As a side note, I recall reading somewhere that his choice of perfume is not Cuir Mauresque, but Serge Noire. It is one of the more challenging perfumes from his export line, in my opinion, and a fragrance that reportedly took ten years to create. I can see the fragrance suiting him because, for me, Serge Noire is the story of a phoenix with a two-sided, almost Janus-like duality. And, as this peek into his history may show, Serge Lutens is definitely a phoenix in some ways. Still, if he wears Cuir Mauresque, I’m even more glad as it is one of my absolute favorite fragrances from his line. It is a scent that I think oozes classic sex appeal, a fragrance that would suit Ava Gardner, just as much as the man who began his career by celebrating female beauty at places like Vogue and Dior.

The contradiction in his personal perfume choices matches the contradiction within the man himself. The interview in The Independent emphasizes more than a few times that Lutens can be, as they put it, “contrary”:

On the one hand, he talks dispassionately, almost disparagingly, about people who declare their work a passion, but then declares that if he did not create he would die. To him, the message is important, the medium only secondary: “The passion of fragrance does not exist. You go inside something, you’re pulled to something you can’t resist despite yourself. But that’s not a passion for a fragrance; it would be ridiculous to call it that.”

Or take his view that perfume should be “inaccessible.” It is a philosophy that Lutens seems to have intentionally tried to render concrete in the most literal, geographic, physical sense possible: you can’t get to his Salons directly from the street, but, instead, you have to enter from the gardens of the Palais Royal. The Independent article has more on the issue of inaccessibility, the concomitant aspect of exclusivity, and the paradoxes within Lutens’ view:

[His store’s] inaccessible location was apparently chosen by Lutens to “attract a clientele of connoisseurs, not casual customers”. […][¶]

Originally sold only through the Palais du Royal, his creations are now slightly more widely available, with selected stockists including specialist perfumery Les Senteurs and Harvey Nichols. The complexity of the blends, the narrative behind each scent and the formulation of cosmetic means that this is a brand that appeals to aesthetes. “Perfume is just molecules,” he says in his contradictory way. “The best perfume-maker was the wind, rivers and pollens…”

Lutens does not believe perfume should be accessible, nor that it should be worn every day. To him, if you wear perfume, “you are giving yourself arms, weapons. Transforming a weakness into a strength, protecting yourself by making a stand. This is the main purpose of my perfumes – strengthening your inner self”. Indeed, he explains that he only wears his own fragrance of choice, Cuir Mauresque, very rarely: “I wear it because it makes me feel good on this particular day”.

His philosophy of “perfume as weaponry” differs vastly from my own views of the purpose or nature of perfumery, but I’m fascinated by the psychological layers behind it. And, ultimately, I’m even more fascinated than I originally was by the man himself.

In the past, I set out to systematically answer the question — “Who is this man?!” — by exploring the side of “Uncle Serge” that he’s shown in his olfactory creations. This new journey into his biographical past has been a further attempt to understand the man whom I admire and respect like few others in the perfume world. Nonetheless, I always knew one could determine only the tip of the iceberg, and little else, from second-hand accounts. Even so, this journey has left me simultaneously more perplexed, more awed, more confused, more illuminated, more impressed, and more at a loss of what to make of Monsieur Lutens than I was before.

Perhaps that is how it should be. Genius is complicated. Visionaries can be contradictory, and their core essence sometimes elusive. Serge Lutens is a quiet, complex, unbelievably talented, utterly brilliant man with a painful past, a vast range of interests, an enormously inquisitive intellectual mind, and a unique creative vision. One can’t neatly tie up such a man in a well-ordered package, and stick a bow on him. If his perfumes show anything, it is an infinite capacity for metamorphosis, and more layers than an onion. In that, and in their sophisticated, multi-faceted, sometimes difficult, contrary nature, they are the ultimate representation of the man behind their invention.

So, perhaps the best one can do in trying to decipher the enigma that is Serge Lutens is to remember that his olfactory art is really a search for identity, an identity he himself does not always understand:

“I don’t know what I am really, but by creating my own weapons and talking about them I provide them to you. Some people are going to recognise my fears. I do not want to be recognised or famous, I don’t really care about having my name in big letters, the point is to recognise who you are. All I’m talking about is identity – that is all I’ve been talking about my whole life.”    


[UPDATE: you can read my exclusive interview with Serge Lutens here in which he talks more about his intellectual interests, his artistic loves, his philosophy, and his aesthetic approach to perfumery.]

Serge Lutens Profile – Part I: His Childhood, His Early Years & What Drives Him

A lonely man, born in war, unwanted by many in his family from the time of his birth, whose very existence was considered to be “a problem” and who later went on to revolutionize the worlds of fashion, beauty, photography, and perfumery. It is the story of a visionary called Serge Lutens.

"Solitude has hard teeth." - Serge Lutens. Photo taken in Morocco by Ling Fei. Source: Le Monde Magazine.

“Solitude has hard teeth.” – Serge Lutens. Photo taken in Morocco by Ling Fei. Source: Le Monde Magazine.

He may be the darling of the perfume world now, just as he was once the rising young star in both the fashion and beauty industry, but Serge Lutens’ origins are shrouded in some mystery. It is surprising, for even though he is, by all accounts, an intensely private man, he is also an incredibly famous one. In fact, his accomplishments from the 1980s to today are so well known that I found it unusual that there was rarely much talk about his early years or his background, especially on a personal level.

His official biography on the Lutens website wasn’t much help in terms of such details, so I was utterly stunned to find an article, tucked away in the absolute bowels of the site, in which Monsieur Lutens talked about his childhood and his family. The article is entitled “Serge Lutens: Conversation” by Pierre Lescure for the RM Exhibition in France (hereinafter referred to just as the “Lescure article“), and it explains so much about the man who we know and love today as “Uncle Serge.” That Lescure piece was the impetus for me to dig deeper into the famous legend, his past, and what drives him.

I ended up discovering more than I had expected, including the extent of his difficult childhood, the scars he bears, his genius and his accomplishments, but also many things about his philosophy to perfumery. So, this will be a two-part series with Part I focusing on Serge Lutens’ background and biography: his childhood, early years, and the events that have shaped him. Part II will focus on perfumery and his philosophy towards it. It will cover such things as, for example, his views on whether perfumes are aphrodisiacs, what he thinks about fragrances being unisex, and how his creations are, ultimately, the search for his own identity. 

I’ve always been a die-hard admirer of Serge Lutens, but I was rather awed by all I learnt, as well as a little heartbroken for him. I hope you enjoy the story of the solitary visionary who brushed off his painful origins and persevered like a triumphant Sisyphus to take the worlds of beauty, art, photography, and perfumery by storm, before transforming them all forever. 


Serge Lutens, age 10. Source: Serge Lutens website.

Serge Lutens, age 10. Source: Serge Lutens website.

Serge Lutens was born during WWII, on March 14th, 1942 in Lille, in northern France. He was not wanted, at least not by his father or his grandparents. In fact, it seems the tiny baby was born from adultery which is something that makes absolutely no difference today, but it did back then, especially in Pétain’s Vichy France where women (but not men) could be severely punished under the law. In the Lescure article, Serge Lutens’ painful childhood is laid bare — and it’s not easy to read:

Serge Lutens was wanted by his mother. But she was the only one who wanted him. His father didn’t want her to keep the baby. The grandparents wanted nothing to do with “this woman” for their son. But she stood her ground, despite Serge’s father, despite a new husband, despite Pétain’s law that targeted women for adultery. A courageous mother, liberated in fact, despite her lowly station in life, despite everything.

Soon after his birth, at just a few weeks of age, baby Serge was removed from his mother, and put into what would be the first of several foster care homes. That fact is borne out not only by the official biography on the Lutens website, but also by a 2013 interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, entitled “Master perfumer Serge Lutens: ‘I don’t want to be recognised or famous‘.”

There, the famously shy Lutens opens up a little about his difficult childhood and how “the lack of a maternal figure had a profound effect on him.”

“I was born in the midst of the Second World War,” he says. “At the time, my mother was married and it was a complex situation. She was unfaithful to her husband.”

“My dad is not German,” he jokes. “Let me just be clear about that. But my mum had to give me up because if she hadn’t, the laws at the time meant she would have been punished as an adulteress. She did it in order to protect me and protect herself. My mum didn’t abandon me, but it means that I didn’t see her that much and I didn’t have a motherly character in my life. My personality was influenced by that.”

Lutens has spoken previously of his “blurred identity”, partly influenced by his illegitimacy. It is a subject that he has only spoken of in a veiled way before, but in person he shrugs it off. “It’s just a normal story,” he says. “All these things are seen through the light of your own experience.”

“All my life I went from one foster family to another, and this great instability provided a great opportunity for me to be able to work on myself, to write life in a way that wasn’t planned originally.”

Despite being constantly shuttled around, and the loss of a real home or mother figure, it would seem that the very young Lutens did see his mother on occasion as a toddler. According to, the Lescure interview with Monsieur Lutens, it might have been more of an on-and-off-again thing in the early years, perhaps due to a mother’s natural fear for her baby during the terrifying time of war and Nazi occupation.

At the very least, he saw her on one occasion in 1943, in an incident he recounted to Pierre Lescure and whose painful, traumatic memories have even been rendered concrete in the architectural structure of his Paris headquarters today:



At the center of the boutique gallery, anchored in the floor, at the heart of the Royal Palace, is a massive spiral stairway that seems to spin into infinity. It takes us up to the floor. The deep, intimate, violent and artistic relationship Serge Lutens had with his mother was forced in a stairwell in Northern France in 1943 under a Nazi bombardment. “There was a warning siren. I can still see my mother’s empty eyes — empty of everything but fear. For me and for herself. We go down to a bomb shelter. I’m very small, but the memory is very precise. Everyone squeezes together. And I literally lose my mother. I am squashed by grownups. At the all-clear, I see myself being jostled and bumped, climbing this interminable rusty staircase, hanging onto the honeycomb-like surface of each step. We found each other, but the terrifying vertigo of the stairway for me is the loss of my mother.

Serge Lutens may have been only a year old or 18-months at the time of that event in 1943, but it clearly left a mark. (For those of you who wonder about how a child so young may have such a detailed memory of an incident, there are apparently some studies from child psychologists and neurologists on “event memory,” which claim that toddlers can indeed recall deep trauma, even if they can’t verbalize it at the time. I’m am wholly unqualified to speak on either issue, and am merely quoting Lutens’ comments to the interviewer.)

Whatever the precise nature of his memories, I think the issue of his mother is the key to understanding Serge Lutens. As the Lescure article makes clear, it is the context for everything that drives him:

Serge Lutens’s discoveries since the early 60’s have become historic land-marks in womens’ beauty and womens’ lives. “In this woman’s life,” Serge insists. He hates when you talk about women. That says it all. For him, it’s “this woman,” his own double, whom he reinvents in every photograph, dress, makeup, makeup design, or perfume.

Source: Serge Lutens website.

Source: Serge Lutens website.

And “this woman” is really just his mother. As Pierre Lescure emphasizes throughout the article, Serge Lutens’ mother is his ultimate muse and source of creativity. He is never far from her, mentally and emotionally, and has always sought to keep her near. In a moment of philosophical and Freudian symbolism, Monsieur Lutens told the journalist, “I invented her so I could exist.” She is the one whom he is ultimately and symbolically always capturing — regardless of medium, whether it is photography, makeup, fashion, or perfumery. Thus, he, “whom his father always more or less intentionally melded with his mother” has now explicitly and defiantly melded himself with her.

According to Lescure, “[t]hese fragile beginnings, the solitary path, the double life, he and she makes him a sort of anti-Lagerfeld.” Which may explain, in part, why the fashion visionary to whom Lutens feels most connected is Yves St. Laurent. “Like Yves, Lutens ‘started as a problem.'” And like St. Laurent, Lutens worked incredibly hard from an extremely young age to start on his road to success.

In 1956, at the age of 14, Lutens was sent off to work “at a bourgeois hair salon in [Lille, in] northern France.” He hated it. The official biography on his website states,

he was given a job against his will – he would have preferred being an actor – in a beauty salon in his native city.

Two years later, he had already established the feminine hallmarks that he would make his own: eye shadow, ethereally beautiful skin, short hair plastered down. He also became known for the colour black, from which he never deviated. He confirmed his tastes and his choices with the female friends of his whom he photographed.

There, in that beauty salon, the teenage apprentice hair-dresser absorbed everything like a sponge, and took photographs all the while. To quote from the Lescure piece:

He observes authentic versus fake elegance, learns how to do everything, and how to adapt everything. Like an extension of his arm and his eye, his simple little camera is always with him.

War, unfortunately, had not finished with Serge Lutens. This was France in the late 1950s, after all, and the Algerian war was raging on. It was a conflict which I studied quite a bit at one time, and you cannot begin to imagine its impact on France. It was a war that threatened to ignite the country into a civil war, and there was almost a military coup which sought to topple the French government. Like all young men, Serge Lutens was subject to national military service; in 1960, at the age of 18, he was called up. The crucible of violence had its impact, and when his one-year period of conscription was over, Serge Lutens decided to forever change his life. Around 1961 or so, he left his hometown of Lille, and made his way to Paris.

Photo: Image courtesy of Barney’s / Serge Lutens, via

Photo: Image courtesy of Barney’s / Serge Lutens, via

Helped by a friend, and carrying large photos that he had taken with his tiny camera, Serge Lutens sought to make it big in the capitol. It wasn’t easy at first; the official bio on his website states, elliptically and obliquely, that he experienced a time of “insecurity and need.” Then, in 1962, at the age of 20, he contacted Vogue. “For him, this magazine represented the essence of beauty: a sort of convent that he mythologised.” And, thanks to those photos and his little Instamatic that he had taken everywhere with him while working as a teenager in Lille, he got the attention of Vogue’s legendary Editor-in-Chief, Edmonde Charles Roux. To quote from the Lescure piece:

His Instamatic would wind up opening some of the very best doors. He comes to Paris in ’62. He is 20. He brings his photographs to the great Edmond [sic] Charles Roux’s Vogue, at Place du Palais Bourbon. At Elle, the […] very young Lutens would be called upon whenever there was an emergency: a photo, the perfect jewelry to complete a shoot, the Christmas edition going to press in 3 days… Quick, quick, Serge, we need an idea! The man in black would become indispensable.

A 2012 article on the Lutens’ website entitled Mysteries of Beauty by Karim Moucharik for Dalia Air Magazine elaborates further:

At the age of 20, he entered French Vogue – whose editor-in-chief was then academician Edmonde Charles- Roux – with a portfolio in hand. He contributed to it as a photographer, along with great names like Guy Bourdin, Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton.

Actually, the young Lutens was such an instant star, that he worked with everyone, not just Vogue. All the magazines came calling, from Elle to Jardin des Modes and Harper’s Bazaar. He collaborated with the most famous photographers, while also pursuing his own art. It wasn’t just Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, or Helmut Newton, but also Bob Richardson, the great Irving Penn, and every other photo legend.

Serge Lutens wasn’t done yet. There were new worlds to conquer, and he did so when Christian Dior came calling. It was 1968, and though Serge Lutens was very young, his genius and versatility were clear to all. So, when one of the most prestigious fashion houses of all time decided that they wanted to expand into a new venture called “make-up,” they entrusted it to a 26-year old photographer and hairdresser.

Serge Lutens ad for Dior in French Elle 1977. Source: Beauty is a Warm Gun blogspot.

Serge Lutens ad for Dior in French Elle 1977. Source: Beauty is a Warm Gun blogspot.

Yes, it is Serge Lutens who is responsible for the invention of fashion house “makeup” as we know it today. He had already created such a buzz that, as the Lescure article makes clear, Dior and the legendary Mark Bohan turned over their entire plan “to ‘create’ make-up,” along with the development of an entire range of products, to Paris’ young, new star. Ironically, despite his love of black and his insistence on wearing nothing but black like his other heroes, Chanel and St. Laurent, Lutens would be most successful in white. According to the Lescure piece, it was the use of that unexpected colour in makeup which made the Lutens line so revolutionary. The result was a blockbuster hit, for the both of them, and a life of “Travel, luxury, airplanes, Rolls-Royces.”

Serge Lutens, age 30, in 1972. Source: Le Monde Magazine.

Serge Lutens, age 30, in 1972. Source: Le Monde Magazine.

In the 1970s, Lutens continued his meteoric rise. The famous editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Diana Vreeland, was unstinting in her enthusiasm and put his face on Vogue’s cover with the headline: “Serge Lutens, Revolution of Make-up!” To quote his official bio on the Lutens website, “His success was resounding. Serge Lutens became the symbol of the freedom created through makeup, for a whole new generation.”

It still wasn’t enough. Lutens started to explore different artistic ventures, and succeeded brilliantly each and every time. In 1972, according to Wikipedia, his series of photographs (inspired by such famous painters as Claude Monet, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani) was impressive enough to be shown at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1974, he made several short films based on his passion for movies and the legendary actresses in them. They were good enough to get shown at the famous Cannes Films Festival.

Serge Lutens 1971. Source: Serge Lutens Archives, via Le Monde style magazine

Serge Lutens 1971. Source: Serge Lutens Archives, via Le Monde style magazine.

During this time, he also travelled widely, especially to Morocco and Japan, two countries whose very different cultures would impact him enormously in years to come.

The 1980s mark the start of the period in Lutens’ life which most people know about today. It was the beginning of his Shiseido era. As his official biography explains:

in 1980, […] he signed on with Shiseido for a collaboration that was to enable the Japanese cosmetics group, until then unknown on the international scene, to establish such a powerful visual identity that it became one of the world’s leading market players in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.

Lutens created makeup for the company, designed its packaging, took photographs, and sought to reinvented Shiseido’s entire image, while also expanding their business into foreign markets. It is all thanks to Serge Lutens that Shiseido, today, is a market force and beauty giant. However, his success wasn’t limited just to beauty, marketing, and business development. Throughout the 1980s, he also shot various advertising campaigns and films for Shiseido. He was so brilliant, he won two ‘Lions d’Or‘ at the International Advertising Film Festival.


Serge Lutens 6

Self-portrait in 1986, via The Independent

Self-portrait in 1986, via The Independent

All these conquered worlds, but it still wasn’t enough for the versatile, seemingly restless genius. Lutens now decided to venture out to explore a totally new area of beauty and art: perfume. He became Shiseido’s Master-Perfumer, and released their first fragrance. Everyone has heard about his famous 1992 creation, Feminité du Bois, for the company, but what some people don’t realise is that the very first Lutens fragrance actually came a whole decade earlier. To quote his website biography, in 1982, “he conceived Nombre Noir, his first perfume, dressed in lustrous black on matte black, a concept that foreshadowed the ubiquitous codes of the 1990’s.”

Source: Fragrantica

Source: Fragrantica

Nombre Noir was a masterpiece, according to all who spoke about it to the Independent for their Lutens profile (linked up above):

[It] “burnt a hole into everyone’s collective memory”, according to Chandler Burr, former New York Times perfume critic, in his book The Emperor of Scent, which chronicles the work of ‘nose’ Luca Turin. Turin, for his part, classifies Nombre Noir “just too wonderful for words, one of the five great perfumes of the world”. No longer in production, but still a favourite among fragrance-lovers, a 60ml bottle is listed on eBay for $999 (£614) at the time of writing.

Serge Lutens 4In 1992, Serge Lutens established his perfume headquarters at Les Salons du Palais Royal, but he was still working under Shiseido’s umbrella. Then, in 2000, with Shiseido’s financial backing and blessing, he went independent and launched his own, eponymous, niche brand. In all cases, however, whether it was perfume for Shiseido or creations for his own house, the effect was the same: he revolutionized the field of perfumery just as he had done decades before in beauty. By 2007, the range, depth, and impact of his decades-long work across various artistic platforms resulted in Serge Lutens being awarded the title “Commandeur des Arts et Lettres” by the French government.

Serge Lutens shiseido_adNo matter which world he conquered, the emotional truth seems to be that he did so not for all women (plural), but always just for “‘this woman‘.” According to Pierre Lescure, Serge Lutens hates it when people talk about “women’s lives,” and corrects them to talk about “this” woman, singular. And that abstract, unnamed, representative, singular woman really seems to be one, very real, flesh-and-blood woman: his mother. Everything he has done seems to be in homage to her, in an attempt to symbolically meld himself, through different artistic mediums, to the one woman from whose arms he was ripped away in infancy. It is all for her, a woman “of great silences” who told him at some unstated, undetermined time: “‘Now it’s your turn. You must go on without me.'” 

I’m not a psychologist, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Freud would have had a field day by Serge Lutens’ symbolic attempts to return to his mother’s womb through the exploration of every possible artistic medium concerning women. Even that great spiral staircase in Les Palais Royale has Freudian meaning, particularly in light of Serge Lutens’ stairwell trauma that night back in 1943. Please don’t think I’m making judgments; I am not. We all bear childhood scars, but some of us have suffered more than others. And, frankly, my heart goes out to Monsieur Lutens for what clearly seems to be an emotionally devastating childhood. 

mode, architecture, beautŽ,Whatever the past or the source of his inspiration, there is no doubt that Serge Lutens’ artistic homage to the famous abstract “woman,” singular, results in work that is absolutely stunning. From the Shiseido ads of the 1990s that reference modern art (and Dada-ism), to his stylistic endeavours and marketing, he has a style that is incredibly powerful, eye-catching and provocative. Take a look, for example, at some of his work in the 2012 Dalia Air Magazine piece hidden in the bowels of the Lutens website, the photos shown on the website of the French newspaper, Le Monde, or any of the Shiseido ads easily found on the web:

SL ad poshlady
Serge Lutens Ad 3

mode, architecture, beautŽ, Serge Lutens 80s

SL Ad 1 SL 3


We are all shaped by our past and, as Thomas Hardy once wrote in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, “experience is as to intensity and not as to duration.” Serge Lutens began his life in war and emotional trauma, but he used those experiences as a wellspring from which to draw strength and to overcome all obstacles. A prodigy and genius, he took the beauty and fashion world by storm, changing their face forever, before eventually setting his sights on the world of perfumery. In Part II, we will explore that world and his fragrance philosophy.

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

Dexter Gordon. 1948. Photo: Herman Leonard via

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:

Billie Holiday. Source:

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.



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.



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.



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:

Billie Holiday. Photo: Herman Leonard. Source:

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.



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.



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 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 – Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serge Lutens describes Fumerie Turque on his website as follows:

Smoking can kill you.

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

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

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

Styrax resin via

Styrax resin via (Website link embedded within photo.)

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

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

Leather Tanning in Morocco. Photo by Burrard-Lucas via

Leather Tanning in Morocco. Photo by Burrard-Lucas via

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



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



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

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

Vanilla powder and essence. Source:

Vanilla powder and essence. Source:

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Bois de Violette

VioletsIn the heart of the cedar forest, one tree towered above all the rest. Its dark, dry bark was peppered, and sometimes spiced with cinnamon, with cardamom that was so rich, it almost verged on chocolate, and with sappy sweetness. The gnarled tangle of its ancient roots protectively surrounded the forest’s greatest treasure: a large bunch of African violets that cast a purple glow that shone like a beacon. Its fragrant smell took over the darkness, lending the forest its name amongst the villagers: “Bois de Violette,” the forest of violets.

The smell was powerful but dainty, delicately airy but dense, and filled with layers that danced in a play of light and dark. The purple petals were bedazzled by fat prisms of dew, creating a watery, purple sweetness. The leaves were dark green, and spicy with the crackling pepper that matched the aroma of the trees around it. And its heart was so sweet, it was fruited, honeyed, and syrupy. From the freshness of succulent, fleshy, ripe peaches hanging on the vine to the sweetness of dark, stewed, glazed fruit, the violet syrup ran like purple blood through the veins of both the flower and the trees. A delicate mist of powder fluttered around the edges, like a darting Tinkerbell who popped up here and there, but who ultimately decided her presence wasn’t needed in the festive play of dainty floral violets, violet syrup, dewy, green, watery, violet freshness, and dark, peppered woods.



That is Bois de Violette, an eau de parfum that was created by Serge Lutens‘ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 1992. Though it is primarily an expensive Paris Bell Jar perfume that is exclusive to Serge Lutens’ Paris headquarters, Bois de Violette came out at some point in a regular, import-version, 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle that is easily available and sometimes discounted online.

Serge Lutens Bois de VioletteSerge Lutens describes Bois de Violette on his website as follows:

Full of vim and vigor.

Once again – and I’m repeating myself – femininity worked its way into this composition, by way of its leaves and a few flowers, whose color – a charming discovery made in a secluded thicket – won me over. A vigorous fragrance, it never gives up!

There is a reason why Uncle Serge says he’s repeating himself, and it’s something that is an important context for the fragrance. Bois de Violette is one of a quartet of “Bois” or wood fragrances to follow from Lutens’ ground-breaking, debut perfume, Féminité du Bois for Shiseido. It 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 de Violette differs from the rest. 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).

[¶] The fourth, Bois de Violette, differs because the woody-fruity violet smell of methyl ionone recapitulates and intensifies the rest of the fragrance. Its rotation takes place around the center; the stained-glass mandala is perfected by a violet gem around which everything dances. [New paragraph spacing added.]

In the remainder of that Five-Star review, Luca Turin talks of the day he bought his bottle of Bois de Violette and how he felt as though he were “carrying the most precious object in the world.” He also adds how Bourdon’s fifth perfume sketch or proposal for the Féminité/Bois series accidentally wound up becoming Dior‘s Dolce Vita. But perhaps the truly intriguing part of the review is the sense one has of the usually acerbic, disdainful, haughty, and wholly unimpressionable Luca Turin — “His Majesty” as he is sometimes known — being completely humbled by Bois de Violette. It’s not something one sees very often in his summations, and it says quite a bit about the perfume.



Fragrantica classifies Bois de Violette as a Woody Floral Musk, and says that its notes consist of “violet, violet leaf and cedar.” I see that simple trio mentioned almost across the board in the note listings for Bois de Violette, but I also came across a few references to orange blossom. It intrigued me, especially as one never knows the full, official listing of ingredients in Serge Lutens’ fragrances. So, being a little OCD, I did some digging, and found a surprisingly lengthy list on a few sites. According to The Perfume House (which sells one of those rare, small 1.7 oz bottles of Bois de Violette), the perfume actually includes:

Cedarwood, violet leaf, candied plum, peach, orange blossom, rose, violet, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, musk, vanilla, honey.

It’s a very different matter, wouldn’t you say? In the vial, Bois de Violette smells of violets, its green leaves, and something dewy. On the skin, however, the perfume opens as a rich, complex bouquet of dried fruit, violets, violet powder, wet violet petals, the green of the leaves, the wet, damp earth surrounding it, and violet syrup. In the background, there are subtle flickers of orange blossom, peach, sweet tea rose, musk, cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey. The perfume feels simultaneously light, dark, airy, sheer, and thick– all at once. Yet, its projection is so subtle, delicate and light that I actually had to double my usual dose (to about 4.5 large, dabbed smears) to get all the nuances.



The delicacy of the violets is stunning. Fragile, dainty, watery, airy, and, yet, that dark, dense, syrupy shadow lurks behind them. In a strange way, it feels almost ominous, this pretense of delicate fragility with a big, hulking, dark shadow looming broodingly from behind the thicket of equally dark trees. The forest that initially felt a little in the distance starts to inch closer as the opening minutes pass by. It’s cedar, but it’s more than just simply dry, peppered woods. The tree is dark from spices like cardamom, and the merest hint of fiery cloves. The two work in conjunction with the sweetness of the dark fruits, the syrupy violet, and the drizzled honey to create an unexpected impression of something like cardamom-patchouli-chocolate. It’s subtle, muted and short-lived, but cardamom chocolate definitely comes to mind in those opening moments.

Also lurking in the shadows, in a slightly bewildering juxtaposition to the rest of those notes, is a hint of delicately feminine violet powder. It’s as if Snow White’s compact and violet-orris lipstick had suddenly fallen on the wet, damp floor of a dark, peppered, cedar-cardamom forest, lying nestled amongst dark, haunting violets in an interplay of feminine and masculine, light and shadows. I’m not a huge fan of powdery notes, no matter how light and sheer, so my favorite part of Bois de Violette in the opening minutes may be the more delicate aspect of the flowers themselves. Both the violets and its leaves have a wet, earthy greenness that feels wonderfully fresh and natural. It’s as if they’ve been spackled by dew and by hints of sweetly dark, fresh, early morning soil.



Yet, there are flickers of fruit that start to stir in the background, and which soon add a different nuance to the notes. At first, it’s merely the usual Sheldrake/Lutens base of candied prunes and plums, but soon, less than fifteen minutes into the perfume’s development, there is the peach. It feels bright, sweet, succulent but, also, as fresh as if it were still hanging on the tree. It’s lovely, and reminds me of a note in a vintage classic, but I’m hard pressed to figure out which one. It’s not the peachy intensity or potent sweetness of YSL‘s Champagne/Yvresse, nor of Hèrmes24 Faubourg, and certainly not Guerlain‘s Mitsouko, but there is something frustratingly familiar about it. Whatever the similarity, the peach note is a perfect accompaniment to the violets, adding to their delicate sweetness in a way that sometimes fits better than the darker, candied, syrupy plums or prunes.

Cedar forest via British Columbia's Ministry of Forestry,

Cedar forest via British Columbia’s Ministry of Forestry,

Around this time, the honey begins its slow rise from Bois de Violette’s depths. It’s not heavy or dark, but, rather, sweet, fragrant, and almost floral in nature. Bois de Violette has suddenly turned incredibly fruited and sweet. In fact, the violets feel quite overshadowed in a distinct, individual way. No longer front and center, they lurk behind the honeyed fruits, both fresh and stewed, and the dark cedar trees infused with spices. The cedar is, to my slight regret, supplemented by ISO E Super and it’s initially strong enough to make my head throb a little. That said, it’s not too much as a whole, just enough to underscore the woodiness of the base and to amplify the note of pepper which begins to emerge. That subtle nuance of pepper is almost everywhere, from the delicate, green spiciness of the leaves to the cedar base, and it adds an interesting contrast to Bois de Violette’s floral, fruited, honeyed, wet, earthy and powdered tones.



The perfume’s aquatic undertone is really pretty. It’s as though Bois de Violette’s violet syrup can’t dispel the early morning dew on the flower’s petals. The watery, pastel effect is almost a little discordant amidst the peaches, stewed fruits, honey, and peppered woods. As that combination grows stronger, the aquatic element starts to grow weaker, along with the violet powder. Both recede to the background where they will pop up from time to time like a Jack in the Box, but generally they are just subtle, indirect effects on the perfume’s main composition.

The same thing happens with the green leaves which give a really good fight to the stronger, sweeter notes. They refuse to vanish completely, appearing every now and then in a lovely touch of slightly pungent, very peppered freshness. It feels as if you’ve taken a violet’s actual leaves, and crushed them between your fingers to release their subtle oil. That aroma remains throughout much of Bois de Violette’s development, but it’s rarely front and center as it is in the opening 30 minutes. Instead, it lurks in the background, a mere supporting player to the flower and cedared woods.

As time progresses, the notes wax and wane, hitting certain peaks before ebbing away like the tide. First it is the spices which melt into the background forty minutes into Bois de Violette’s development, no longer noticeable in an individual, distinct manner. Instead, they simply add an indirect effect to the richness and complexity of the sweet base. Then, it’s the turn of the musk. Exactly one hour in, the musk appears, feeling neither white nor dark and animalic. Instead, it’s sweet, and strangely indolic in a way. It grows and grows in strength for the next two hours, imbuing everything it touches with a fine mist, until it, too, fades into an amorphous, nebulous, background effect.



At the 90-minute mark, Bois de Violet starts to change quite dramatically in feel. The perfume feels more subdued, not to mention muted. All the edges have blurred, making the fragrance feel like an out-of-focus swirl of violet sweetness, musk, and dry, spicy, sweetened, peppered woods. It’s hard to know where one note begins and another ends, as they overlap into each other. There are no longer any distinct fruity, peachy, aquatic, leafy, green, spicy, or powdery touches that can be pulled out. Not all those notes are dead, however. Exactly two hours into Bois de Violette’s development, the powder re-emerges. It’s as if it had to wait for the forceful top layer — the dark woods, the fruit, the violet syrup, and the spices — to retreat in prominence before it had a chance to unfurl. The overall result is a soft, slightly powdery, violet fragrance with a hint of fresh, green violet leaves and a lightly sprinkling of pepper (and ISO E Super), all atop a base of violet syrup and woody, peppered cedar.

The perfume turns gauzier and more abstract with every hour. Around the 3.75 hour mark, Bois de Violette is a nebulous, amorphous blend of violets, lightly dusted with a hint of powder and musk, and infused with a vague sense of something green. It’s a soft, muted, sheer, airy combination that floats like transparent purple gauze above the skin. A short time later, at the five-hour mark, Bois de Violette is nothing more than an abstract, sweet, floral musk.

The perfume remains that way until its very end, exactly 7 hours from its start. The sillage was initially moderate before fading to something very soft, discreet, and unobtrusive. And, remember, I had to apply double my usual amount with Bois de Violette (to almost 5 very large dabs in all) to get those numbers. On Fragrantica, there is a mixed assessment of both the projection and duration, with the most votes (10) ascribed to “moderate” longevity and soft sillage (10), followed by moderate (9). One commentator notes that Bois de Violette lasted a mere 2 hours on his skin, but 8 hours on his clothes, with sillage that dropped after 10 minutes to become extremely close to the skin. I suspect that Bois de Violette is a fragrance which will require a lot of sprays to really last, but which will always be extremely discreet and unobtrusive in projection.

Monin Sirop de Violette. Source:

Monin Sirop de Violette. Source:

I like Bois de Violette, but something holds me back from being really impressed. I can’t pinpoint what the problem is. Perhaps it’s the way Bois de Violette went from being so incredibly sweet at first, to becoming a little too blurry, nebulous, and simple. Perhaps it’s because I felt as though the delicate, fresh, natural beauty of the violet flower was initially overshadowed and, then, later, felt so vague that it was like grasping at the wind. And, yet, none of those characterisations are the full story or, maybe, even fair. Bois de Violette is extremely pretty at times, deliciously mouth-watering at other times, and almost delicately…. something. Perhaps if the floral and green aspects to the violet were stronger, I could use the word “haunting,” but Bois de Violette never arises to that level for me. Maybe if it were less syrupy sweet for a good chunk of its development, it could feel like the stained glass window that Luca Turin references with such admiration. Perhaps it’s because the perfume seems like all things violet at once, and, yet, it’s not one single thing at all. It tries to be the full violet from petals to leaf to the earthy damp soil and the trees around it; but it’s also fruited and syrupy, peppered and woody. Maybe it should stick to one thing or the other? Or, maybe, I would have been happier with a more delicate, haunting, pure floral, a violet version of the flowers in the lyrical, stunning, moving and utterly poetic Lutens’ beauty, De Profundis. I don’t know what it is about Bois de Violette, because I certainly like it and would wear it, but I’m not swept off my feet.

I get the sense that many in the perfume community see Bois de Violette as the most perfectly balanced, beautiful violet fragrance around. Whether it’s the handful of bloggers who have reviewed the scent, or those on MakeupAlley who, by and large, adore the fragrance, Bois de Violette is much-loved. On MakeupAlley, for example, 72 people give the perfume an overall rating  of 4.2 out of 5, which is pretty high for such a large number of reviews. The general feeling is that the flowers are dark, sexy, sweet, and perfectly countered by the cedar woods. For example:

  • Sexy, dark violets, perfectly balanced – never cloying or candied and never so intense as to hit people over the head.
  • There’s a period of time in the beginning when the violets are just too much, but once that settles down, this is a beautiful violet-wood fragrance, perfectly balanced and blended.
  • My favorite Serge Lutens. Sweetened (but not overly sweet) violets and woods, mainly cedar. So smooth! It’s warm and snuggy, perfect for winter. Strong yet close to skin, just the type of scent I adore.
  • Candied violets and cedar. Starts out playful and nostalgic, babyish in a vintage way.The violets are effervescent and floating, just loosely tethered to the very grounded cedar. On me, the violets don’t settle down for hours, but when they finally nestle into the wood, it is revelatory, surprising, with perfectly balanced almost austere taste. The scent is romantic and old-fashioned, but not quite a grandmother scent. Instead, it’s like digging in the attic and finding an old wooden chest, filled with mementos of your grandmother’s secret wild life.
  • What a beauty this is! An exquisitely balanced composition of cedar and violet – neither too sweet nor too dry – Bois de Violette has a a wonderful mellow tone to it. The scent is clean, focussed and rounded; it is not a candy-sweet violet or over-green on me, and there is no powder – this violet is deep and true to life. The cedar, too, is warm and pure. Bois de Violette is a wonderfully elegant, tranquil scent[.]
  • A singlular and unique composition of cedar, violet leaves and violet flowers. Ethereal, vivacious and sparkling.
    I was stunned at the super intense cedar note that came through at first. It sure is a woody blast and in those first few seconds lacks any violet. The cedar note is at first so intense that it is almost body odorish but in a good way. Then the violet sweetness emerges and remains playful throughout the rest of the development. The fragrance becomes super sexy[….]



  • I don’t get a pronounced cedar note like others here. I smell REAL, fresh violet in all it’s glory. [¶] Not typically a lover of florals, I would have to say that this is the best violet scent that I’ve ever had the pleasure to sample. [¶] Full bottle worthy!

Over at Basenotes, Bois de Violette receives equally high numbers and, yet, I get  the sense that people are not quite as enamoured. Moreover, “well-balanced” does not seem to the majority consensus, by any means! Out of 24 reviews, 75% give it five stars, while 25% give it three stars. The fragrance is repeatedly compared to its mother, Féminité du Bois (which many find to be extremely similar), but also to some other violet perfumes. Yet, despite those five-star ratings, quite a few commentators seem to prefer the mothership perfume. As for the “candied” sweetness of the violets, a number of people find it to be “cloying” or excessive. (“Killer sweetness” was one description of it, and it was not said as a positive.) On occasion, there will be a handful who find the note to be fresh and natural, but they aren’t many. Obviously, how Bois de Violette manifests itself will all depend on your skin chemistry, and the extent to which it amplifies or mutes the sweet basenotes. Mine always opts for amplification, and, clearly, Bois de Violette with its syrup is no exception.

Though I wish the perfume were a little fresher, I do recommend Bois de Violette, especially for those who like somewhat sweet fragrances but not full-blown gourmand ones. The cedar, green, peppery, and watery elements provide some balance, depth, and complexity, ensuring that Bois de Violette is more than just candied, syrupy violets. And, it differs from many violet fragrances out there which are primarily powdery and, therefore, somewhat old-fashioned in feel. Bois de Violette can be worn by men and women alike, it’s versatile for day or night, and its low sillage makes it extremely office-appropriate. I’m somewhat dubious about the fragrance’s longevity, though the fact that you can buy it relatively cheaply in a regular bottle (as opposed to the exclusive, uber-expensive Bell Jars) means that you can spray on enough of the perfume to give it greater duration.

All in all, it’s definitely a fragrance worth looking into. If you’ve never tried Serge Lutens before, Bois de Violette is a surprisingly wearable fragrance that could be a good entry point into the line. And, for those who are experienced perfumistas, the range of the violet’s nuances — from petal to leaf, and all the things around it — may win your heart.

General Cost & Discounted Sales Prices: Bois de Violette is an eau de parfum that Serge Lutens now offers only in the large 2.5 oz/75 ml bell jar version that costs $300, or €135. However, you can still find the smaller 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle (that is either a special edition bottle or something now discontinued) on some U.S. and European perfume websites. It retails at $200, but you can also find it on sale at a much lower price. Bois de Violette is currently on sale at Amazon which sells it directly, and not through third-party vendors, for $94.79. It is also on sale at FragranceNet where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle is priced at $97.19 with free domestic shipping and free international shipping for order over $100. The price is also reduced at Sears which sells Bois de Violette for $95.95 through a third-party vendor with $6.95 shipping. FragranceX sells the 1.7 oz bottle for $96.92. I don’t know how long these specials will last.
Serge Lutens: You can find Bois de Violette in the bell jar option on the U.S. and International Lutens website (with non-english language options also available). It’s priced at $300 or €135.
U.S. sellers: Bois de Violette is available at Barney’s in the bell jar format which costs $300. The site has a notice which states: “This product is only available for purchase at the Madison Avenue Store located at 660 Madison Avenue. The phone number for the Serge Lutens Boutique is (212) 833-2425.” However, you can find the special 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle for $200 at LuckyscentAedesBeautyhabit, the Perfume House, and Shop Rescue Spa.
Outside the U.S.: In Canada, you can find Bois de Violette at The Perfume Shoppe for what is US$200, since it is primarily an American business with a Vancouver branch. They also offer some interesting sample or travel options for Lutens perfumes. For Europe, it gets harder. I get the sense that the perfume is seen as “Limited Edition” for many European vendors, in the sense that Bois de Violette is now a Paris Bell Jar Exclusive and, thus, limited for sale elsewhere in Europe. However, I did find a few vendors which carry the old or special edition 1.5 oz/50 ml size. In the UK, Bois de Violette isn’t listed at Harrods, but the 50 ml bottle is available at Liberty and UK 5th Village, both of which sell Bois de Violette for £105. In France, Premiere Avenue sells it for €106, and I believe they ship world-wide, or at least through the Euro zone. In Belgium, Bois de Violette is exclusive to Senteurs d’Ailleurs which sells the 50 ml bottle for €110. In Australia, you can get Bois de Violette on sale from FragranceNet for AUD$105.99 with free shipping.
Samples: You can test out Bois de Violette by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. It is also included as an option in a Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where the vials are also 1/2 ml each, but you get your choice of 5 Lutens Non-Export fragrances (ie, those that are Paris exclusives).

Perfume Review- Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist: Futuristic Iris



Otherworldly. Cold as icy vodka. Hard as steel. Silvered like mist from outer space. That is the hypnotically strange, fascinating and, yes, a little bizarre opening to the famous Iris Silver Mist from Serge Lutens. It’s perhaps the most famous of all the Lutens Bell Jar fragrances, an iris fragrance taken to such extremes that it feels very futuristic at the start. All I could think of in its opening moments is how Serge Lutens had created the perfect scent for a Star Wars stormtrooper or a Terminator cyborg. And, strange as that may sound, that’s my favorite part. A Terminator cyborg sipping vodka in outer space while wearing Iris Silver Mist. 

Rare, Limited-Edition, Bell Jar for Iris Silver Mist. Source: The Perfume Shrine.

Rare, Limited-Edition, Bell Jar for Iris Silver Mist. Source: The Perfume Shrine.

Iris Silver Mist was released in 1994, and is one of the few Lutens fragrances not created by Christopher Sheldrake. It was made by Maurice Roucel, a famous perfumer responsible for such fragrances as Frederic Malle‘s Musc Ravageur, Guerlain‘s L’Instant, Hèrmes24 Faubourg (one of my favorites), Gucci Envy, RochasTocade, Bond No. 9‘s Haarlem, and many more. Iris Silver Mist is one of the Serge Lutens’ Paris Exclusives in a bell jar form, though it can actually be purchased outside of France, either from Barney’s New York or directly from Serge Lutens’ international and U.S. websites.

The Lutens website describes Iris Silver Mist as follows:

You can’t see a thing, but the scent tells the story.

Gleams of silver in a fine mist. Under our very eyes, powdery notes are transformed into an iridescent fragrance..

The current, available bell jar for Iris Silver Mist.

The current, available bell jar for Iris Silver Mist.

Iris Silver Mist is an iris soliflore, a fragrance centered around one key note, and few ingredient lists makes that as clear as the amusing one from Surrender to Chance which writes:

iris, cedar, clove, vetiver, iris, benzoin, incense, iris, white amber, clove, iris, iris, galbanum, iris, iris, more iris, little more iris, musk, Chinese spicebush and, um, more iris!

Other sites include different elements for the non-iris part of the equation. Compiling the notes from both Bois de Jasmin and Now Smell This, the list seem to be:

iris pallida root, galbanum, cedar, sandalwood, clove, vetiver, labdanum, musk, benzoin, incense, and white amber

There is a famous story behind Iris Silver Mist’s creation which is pretty funny. As Surrender to Chance puts it:

Rumor has it that during the making of Iris Silver Mist, Serge Lutens kept telling Roucel that he didn’t have enough iris (pallida) in the fragrance, put more in, until Roucel dumped every iris compound he could find in it, took it back, and Serge pronounced it perfect, and that became Iris Silver Mist.

Then, there is Luca Turin’s version of the tale in Perfumes: the A-Z Guide. It’s useful because it also adds to the perfume’s feel and notes, while also describing what must have been a very stressful perfume collaboration :

Long before everyone started doing irises and (mostly) pseudo-irises, Lutens had commissioned an iris to end them all from Maurice Roucel. The story goes that Lutens pestered the perfumer to turn up the iris volume to the max, and Roucel in his desperation decided to put into the formula every material in his database that had the iris descriptor attached to it, including a seldom-used brutal iris nitrile called Irival. The result was the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a huge gray ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple dévoré velvet at a poet’s funeral.

The “most sinister iris imaginable” — or perhaps, the most futuristic one. Iris Silver Mist opens on my skin as cold as iced vodka. The perfume actually has some of the drink’s same, lightly alcoholic, clear aroma when it is a thick, syrupy, frozen liquid, though it doesn’t smell like pure alcohol per se. The smell is simultaneously a little bit metallic in its nuances, artificial, synthetic, misty, and faintly powdery.



Front and center, however, is iris’ most frequent characteristic: the scent of boiled carrots. The note has a strong undertone that is both watery and sweet at the same time. At times, it almost seems accompanied by the aroma of rooty turnips, as well. The accord is ensconced and cocooned by the earthy, green nuances of the galbanum. Frequently, galbanum can be sharply pungent, almost bitter, and abrasively green. Here, however, it merely feels like very damp, dark, loamy soil that is infused with a soft, watery, floral sweetness. It’s delicate, and very lovely. The whole combination is lightly dusted by powder which adds to the silvery whiteness of the visuals.



The metallic clang to the iris concentrate is fascinating. It not only counters the subtle rootiness and powderiness at the perfume’s base but, more importantly, it feels as hard and silvered as steel. I’ve never encountered an iris note quite like it before, so it must be that “seldom-used brutal iris nitrile called Irival” which Luca Turin referenced in his book. Whatever the cause, the iris flower has been taken to silvery, grey extremes, amplified by the perfume equivalent of steroids, to smell completely alien. It’s more than just the thick, frozen vodka note infused with floral, boiled carrots and green earthiness, or even the feel of frozen metal. It’s something indescribable that just smells of the cold; an extreme, almost futuristic “cold.” The hard edge seems best suited for a futuristic world of ice, mist, silver, metal, and cyborgs, not to the world of today.

Harvesting the iris root. Source: Weleda UK

Harvesting the iris root. Source: Weleda UK

Iris Silver Mist doesn’t change much in its opening stage. At the five-minute mark, powder joins the icy metal brigade, as does a hint of cloves. The earthy, rooty, vegetal base of the fragrance is further emphasized by a touch of vetiver which carries the same tonalities. At the end of the first hour, the iris slowly softens, feeling a little buttery and much warmer. It starts to take on a faint veneer of soft kidskin suede. The note that I like to call “iced vodka” continues, but it’s slowly growing weaker. The same is true of that very cool, edgy, metallic, futuristic clang that adds such a unique tone to the fragrance. It’s still there, but its retreat makes Iris Silver Mist seem a little less otherworldly. I think something in the base elements is having an indirect effect, warming up the perfume, smoothing out its cool edges, and rendering it far safer and more traditional. Dommage.

Bearded iris via

Bearded iris via

As a soliflore, Iris Silver Mist is pretty true to its core bouquet, and doesn’t twist or turn substantially over time. It remains primarily a scent of vegetal iris, boiled carrots, powder, suede, moist earthiness, and rooty, almost turnip-like touches — all imbued with the merest hint of a light, soft musk. As the hours pass, Iris Silver Mist becomes sweeter, warmer, and more traditionally floral with the iris smelling a bit like really expensive, buttery, soft suede. Its carrot undertone remains, waxing and wanes in strength, sometimes feeling like a mere flicker, while at other times, it’s much stronger.

Around the second hour, the subtle powder and light musk notes in Iris Silver Mist become more prominent. At the same time, the galbanum and vetiver retreat to the background, their quiet, wet, fresh earthiness no longer noticeable in any strong, distinctive, individual way. Unfortunately, some combination of the light musk, the powder, and perhaps the muted earthiness of the fragrance leads Iris Silver Mist to take on a subtle soapy vibe. It’s not actual soap, to my nose, but  there is a definite aura or impression of extremely expensive French floral soap subtly wafting around — and I’m not a fan of it in the slightest.

More interesting is the start of something creamy in the base around the end of the second hour. It never smells like true, genuine Mysore sandalwood (or any particular wood for that matter), and it also doesn’t smell like vanilla. Instead, it smells like some nebulous, vague abstraction of both things combined: white woods that are creamily soft with just the bare hint of sweetness. Regular readers know my issues regarding the supposed “sandalwood” in most modern perfumes, so I suppose those creamy, vague, amorphous, wood notes are supposed to be the “sandalwood” mentioned on the perfume list. I refuse to acknowledge it as such. (Yes, I give in, I admit I’m a sandalwood snob. It’s Mysore, or nothing.)

Three hours in, Iris Silver Mist is a soft, buttery, lightly powdered, iris that is now warmed up and silky, almost purely floral in nature, and freed of its more vegetable-like characteristics in large part. The bouquet sits atop some muted, amorphous, creamy, beige woods with a flicker of light musk. Alas, the impression of very expensive floral soap still lingers around the edges. Equally sad, the lovely damp earthiness from the vetiver and galbanum is but a mere shadow in the background. Far below, in the base, stirs a trace of some vanilla that is sweet, but also a little bit dry. I don’t detect any amber anywhere at all. By the end of the fourth hour, the powder has largely disappeared and Iris Silver Mist is a lightly musky, vanilla-sweetened iris over creamy woods. It stays that way for a few more hours, until it dies away as just a faint trace of some abstract floral note with vanilla.

All in all, Iris Silver Mist lasted 7.25 hours on my skin with low sillage throughout. The projection was moderate at first, wafting about 2 inches from the skin, before quickly dropping at the end of the first hour to hover just above the skin. Iris Silver Mist became a skin scent just short of two hours into its development, and became extremely difficult to detect around the sixth hour. In fact, I thought it had died at one point soon thereafter, but the fragrance hung on doggedly, even if it did take some hard sniffs to find it. As a whole, its weight is airy, and feels as sheer as mist.

The Milky Way. Source:

The Milky Way. Source:

Iris Silver Mist is an extremely well-crafted, elegant, sophisticated perfume, but it’s not my personal cup of tea. I adored the first 30-40 minutes, and thought it was cool beyond belief — in all senses of the word. Alien, original, almost disconcerting, wholly futuristic, and so damn intriguing, you couldn’t stop sniffing your arm to figure it just what the hell was going on. A perfume that made me think of “Space, The Final Frontier,” cyborgs, stormtroopers, the icy mist of the Milky Way, and the 22nd century (or the 25th)? Bring it on!

Princess Grace. Photo source: Tumblr.

Princess Grace. Photo source: Tumblr.

But, the elegant, refined, sophisticated 20th century iris of expensive, grey suede gloves with flickers of carrots, French soap and vanilla that Iris Silver Mist soon turned into? Eh. Not so interesting, for me personally, even though it is truly very lovely as a swirling, delicate, elegant, sum total. If the lovely, earthy, wet greenness had remained, and if the impression of expensive soap had never shown up, perhaps I would feel differently. But, I’m not an iris fanatic at heart, so I find it hard to be moved by something that is so traditionally pretty. Yet, I’m sure the suede heart of buttery, floral, powdery, vanillic iris is the Iris Silver Mist that most people love; it’s the sane, approachable, easy, wearable, and normal part. In fact, I’d bet I’m rather an oddity in loving that strange beginning. After all, suede, flowery iris with its gobs of orris butter is the iris suited to the likes of Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, or extremely wealthy, well-dressed, sophisticated Parisiennes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of it, but it’s hardly as edgy or funky as futuristic, icy, vodka, metallic, cyborg iris from outer space.

Perfume bloggers and renowned experts like Luca Turin adore Iris Silver Mist, consistently rate it Five Stars, and wax rhapsodic over its brilliant beauty. Bois de Jasmin gives it the same rating, using words like “radiant” and “ethereal” in her review:

Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist is iris to the power of 10. Despite its raw strength it manages to convey the ethereal softness and exquisite silkiness that make iris one of the most prized materials in perfumery. […][¶] Orris butter has a powdery quality reminiscent of violets covered with chalk dust, but Iris Silver Mist manages to preserve an amazing clarity. It opens up on a sharp, vegetal note of galbanum that calls to mind sliced green peppers. Its vibrancy is underscored by an earthy pungency, which like a flash of chili on the tongue serves as a piquant accent. The voluptuous beauty of iris unfolds in the heart of the composition, foiled by rich woods and sheer amber. Although Iris Silver Mist begins with thunder, it takes a turn towards graceful softness. […][¶]

It is not a perfume with universal appeal, as it does not attempt to soften the vegetal chill of iris root as has been done in either the floral sweetness of The Different Company Bois d’Iris or the ladylike elegance of Frédéric Malle Iris Poudre. Embellishments, in fact, are unnecessary, for Iris Silver Mist does not attempt to be coy—it is striking and beautiful.

Robin from Now Smell This also calls Iris Silver Mist “ethereal,” writing:

Iris Silver Mist starts with damp, dirt-caked roots, spicy and peppery, with a touch of dry, mossy green. There is a slightly bitter, vegetal edge to the top notes that has been compared to the scent of raw turnips, and there is a hint of the metallic buzz that frequently accompanies iris. It is earthy, but not earth-bound; it has a sheerness about it that together with the resinous notes and sandalwood perfectly evokes the cold swirling mist implied by its name. The longer it is on the skin, the more vaporous it seems, so that both Hiris and Bois d’Iris seem comparatively heavy and weighted down. [¶] It is an unusual, intensely captivating fragrance.

I’d already written most of my review when I stumbled across a very different assessment from Perfume-Smellin’ Things. I was thrilled to read the title — “Alien Technology” — and to see that Iris Silver Mist’s opening evoked “distant planets” for her as well. Like me, Donna is not an iris lover, but, unlike me, she hated the opening and only barely enjoyed the normal part of the fragrance. Her wonderful, absolutely hilarious review reads, in part, as follows:

“Seven of Nine” on Star Trek: Voyager. The photo accompanies Perfume-Smellin’ Things’ review of Iris Silver Mist.

My first question was: is this really a perfume? It is? Then why doesn’t it smell, um, wearable? Like something that’s supposed to be put on your skin? It’s so very strange, like the atmosphere of a distant planet where humans need to wear space suits. Nothing about it is inviting to me but it is certainly oddly beautiful, a piece of chilly abstract art that hangs in a whitewashed gallery filled with cold blue light; you admire it from afar even if you are not sure what the artist meant by it, but you really don’t want to see it hanging on the wall in your own house. It would make you feel weird having something like that around all the time and it certainly would not go with the rest of your home décor, unless your name happens to be Seven of Nine.

I must admit that I am not an “iris person” when it comes to perfume. I like what it does to many compositions, but by itself it always seems remote, and sometimes even flat. There are only a couple of iris soliflore fragrances that I have really liked […][as] iris perfumes always seem to be aloof and bloodless. Iris Silver Mist begins with a super-cooled blast of iris that is immediately followed by a smell that is exactly like those Red Hots™ candies flavored with artificial cinnamon, creating an icy-hot pain rub effect, and then a very emphatic carrot chimes in, and an odor like a gutted Halloween pumpkin the morning after a heavy frost. It’s not until about half an hour later that it finally becomes eerily beautiful as it drifts through the air, but if I put my nose to my skin it is still iris root, carrot and little red candies. It’s the sillage alone that makes it work for me, floating in space and waiting for my breath to catch it, an otherworldly isotope of some rare element being distilled and refined out of the raw ore applied to my flesh. It is only then that I can appreciate the artistry that went into it, but it never comes close to adapting to my skin, as it simply sits on it refusing to make allowances for a mere mortal. There is a popular saying that you are no one until you have been ignored by a cat; now I know what it feels like to be ignored by a perfume.

That last sentence may be the best thing I’ve read in a while!



On Fragrantica, some people are even less enthused than she is about Iris Silver Mist. There are repeated comments about “public toilet hand soap,” rotting vegetables, and carrots. (Seriously, there is a lot of talk about liquid hand soap and carrots!) Several men also add that Iris Silver Mist is unwearably feminine in their eyes. But one woman wrote: “Iris Silver Mist smells like a carrot that got shoved into an electrical socket. I can’t say it’s friendly or wearable, but it does stand out from the crowd.” In fact, the issue of wearability comes up often, from both genders. As one male poster said, “Genius, but I wonder if I could ever really wear it? For the first time in a LONG time I was actually struck dumb by a fragrance.” And another admiringly compared it to conceptual art, with the full implication being that it was not particularly approachable.

Yet, the fans — and there are a number of them, men and women alike — write adoringly of Iris Silver Mist’s elegant austerity, its cool sophistication, its aloof chilliness, and the way the iris radiates different facets like a prism. They talk about the iris’ cool, green earthiness, or the violet nuances that some detect. Quite a few people bring up the sandalwood, though not everyone likes it. (One person described its aroma as “rotten teeth,” while another thought it soapy.) Some don’t find Iris Silver Mist to be chilly or cold at all, but poetically moving or transformative. The words “masterpiece,” “dreamy,” “beautiful,” “elegant,” “romantic” and mysterious are thrown around, with one calling Iris Silver Mist the perfect scent for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Actually, I can see that a little.)

I think the bottom line is that you have to be passionate about iris in all its manifestations to really love Iris Silver Mist. If you do, then you simply must try Serge Lutens’ brilliant masterpiece. If you aren’t a hardcore iris devotee, or if you only occasionally enjoy it in conjunction with some other notes, then I’m not sure Iris Silver Mist will be your cup of tea. Perhaps you’ll be intrigued by the alienness of the opening the way I was, but it’s equally possible that you’ll share the opinion of Perfume-Smellin’ Things and conclude that Iris Silver Mist is simply too difficult for most mere mortals. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. As always with Serge Lutens’ most storied and admired creations, some people need to admire them from a distance. A great distance. And, preferably, on somebody else.


Cost & Availability: Iris Silver Mist is an eau de parfum that is part of the Serge Lutens “Paris Exclusives” line. It is only available in the larger 2.5 oz/75 ml Bell Jar size, and costs $300 or €140. You can buy Iris Silver Mist directly from the U.S. Serge Lutens website or from the International one.
In the U.S.: you can also find Iris Silver Mist 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: 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 $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 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 Iris Silver Mist 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 Iris Silver Mist from Surrender to Chance starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. I actually ordered mine 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.