Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle: Genius but not Felonious.

ML

Marlene Dietrich

The Agony and the Ecstasy.” I had heard so much about Tubereuse Criminelle, but the Perfume Shrine’s reference to the Irving Stone classic in the context of sadomasochism and Marlene Dietrich made me sit up just a little bit higher and pay strict attention. Elena Vosnaki, the award-winning editor and expert behind The Perfume Shrine, wrote about “fire and ice” and described T/C as “felonious,” before concluding: “Like Marlen Dietrich’s name according to Jean Cocteau, but in reverse, Tubéreuse Criminelle starts with a whip stroke, ends with a caress. For sadomasochists and people appreciative of The Agony and The Ecstasy. A masterpiece!!” (Emphasis added.) 

Good Lord! My jaw dropped. I had to try it, and I had to try it immediately. Like any self-respecting tuberose lover, I own (and love) Fracas, created in 1948 by Robert Piguet and now, the benchmark for all tuberose scents. But perfumistas of all stripes — regardless of how they feel about classique tuberose fragrances — are also aware that today’s modern masters have sought to take tuberose and flip it upside its head. To transform it from the powerhouse legend that so many adore and that a small portion tremble before in abject horror and fear. Serge Lutens was the very first to do that in 1999 with Tubereuse Criminelle, followed thereafter by Frederic Malle in 2005 with Carnal Flower.

The Perfume Shrine’s review, along with that of numerous others, made me determined to try both modern takes on my beloved Fracas right away. (Plus, the “ice” part sounded bloody good to one suffering the horrors of a Texas summer.)

Marlene Dietrich's legendary legs, once insured by Lloyds of London.

Marlene Dietrich’s legendary legs, once insured by Lloyds of London.

I did my best to overlook the numerous references to “mouth wash,” “gasoline,” “Drano,” and metholated rubber. I focused instead on “sadomasochism” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (a book I’d loved and a movie that isn’t bad either). Or other comments like, “criminally genius,” “subversive” and “transformative” (the latter usually said by those who previously felt ill at the mere thought of tuberose.) But, really, it was the Perfume Shrine’s review. Would you pass up the chance to feel “felonious”or to be like Marlene Dietrich cracking a whip?

While waiting impatiently for my sample bottles to arrive, I read up on Tubereuse Criminelle. Uncle Serge (as he is often affectionately called) worked with his favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and their final product was exclusive to their Palais Royal store in Paris.

The bell jar of Tubereuse Criminelle.

The bell jar of Tubereuse Criminelle.

It was one of the famous “bell jar” fragrances — a reference to the shape of the bottle. As a Palais Royal exclusive, it was also not available for export and was considerably more expensive than the regular, export Lutens line. (In the US, the Lutens website currently offers the bell-jar form for $300 for 75 ml or 2.5 fl. oz in eau de parfum form. However, it also offers the regular 1.7 oz/50 ml rectangular bottle for $140.)SL TC small

Being one of Lutens’ “non-export” Paris exclusives just added to the mystique but, finally, in mid-2011, Lutens agreed to export the scent world-wide. Allegedly, Tubéreuse Criminelle was reformulated to comply with certain export regulations and was weakened in strength. There is no official confirmation of that; perfume houses rarely admit it. So, thus far, it is merely anecdotal references based on people’s experiences with the original Palais Royal salon perfume. But there have been a lot of those anecdotes with regard to several Lutens perfumes that are now available as exports.

I think a 2011 interview with Serge Lutens makes it pretty clear that some Lutens fragrances have definitely been reformulated for one reason or another. In an interview with Fragrantica, Lutens was asked explicitly about whether he had ever reformulated a scent to comply with those bloody IFRA regulations.

Serge Lutens

Serge Lutens

He answered as follows:

Laws are a force from which one cannot escape. They are even applied hypocritically, through the circumventing of them or, as with all the world of perfumery (if it wants to be in compliance with these laws), by replacing the forbidden with other elements… which will themselves be prohibited a few months later. However, I do not like to retrogress: what’s done is done, and it is not certain that a perfumery such as mine can continue in the future. (Emphasis added.)

The Tubereuse Criminelle entry on the Lutens website states simply:

"Les Fleurs du Mal," Charles Baudelaire.

“Les Fleurs du Mal,” Charles Baudelaire.

Baudelaire was right. Let’s give the flowers back to evil.

And I think he and Christopher Sheldrake achieved that to a large extent, via the ingredients. The notes for Tubéreuse Criminelle are:

jasmine, orange blossom, hyacinth, tuberose, nutmeg, clove, styrax (also known as benzoin), musk and vanilla.

But the transformative key to Tubéreuse Criminelle — the thing which made it so revolutionary as a tuberose perfume — is menthyl salicylate which is a natural organic compound found in tuberose. It creates a very medicinal, almost mentholated or camphorous eucalyptus smell that evokes “Vicks Vapor Rub” for some, but minty mouth wash for others. It can also create varying impressions of gasoline/petrol, rubbery or leather.

Tubéreuse Criminelle opens with a burst of sweet jasmine and, yes, eucalyptus and menthol. It is a much sweeter opening than I recall from when I first tried this scent this summer. Perhaps the heat amplified the menthol notes then but, today, all I smell is heady, narcotic, luxurious, sweet jasmine and, then, only in second place, the menthol. There is a muscle rub smell that is not, on me, Vick’s Vapor Rub but an almost sugared, sweetened version of Tiger’s Balm. The faintly medicinal edge is much softer than I had remembered but, at no time, has it ever been that burst of ice that I read about in the Perfume Shrine’s review. The narcotic-like headiness and warmth of the jasmine round out the notes far too much for them to be a blast of chilly ice. It is, as one person on Basenotes noted so aptly, ” “a lively cooling sharpness.”

A faintly rubbery note soon emerges. It’s not burnt rubber, but an almost thick, viscous, rubbery richness that is oddly sweet. Indolic flowers can often have a rubbery element to the narcotic richness at their heart; and this perfume contains two of the most indolic flowers around – jasmine and tuberose. (You can read more about Indoles and Indolic scents at the Glossary.) Yet, the cool freshness of menthol that cuts through the heady fumes of the flowers in a really clever way, reducing any potential cloying, over-ripeness. I am really enjoying the extremely unusual, novel, unique smell.

Perhaps that’s because I don’t smell many of the terrible notes that Tubéreuse Criminelle’s detractors repeat so frequently. Some of the comments from the negative reviews on Basenotes include the following:

  • A fur coat in mothballs, wrapped in plastic. Shag carpet recently steamed with an industrial strength cleaner and still wet. The open-casket funeral of a wealthy great-aunt. Wow.
  • Starts out with a strong note of iodine followed by the sharp rubber scent of brand new steel belted radial tires. […] Smells like I’m in the tire store one minute and then in a hospital testing lab the next.
  • I love tuberose…but not when it’s mixed with Denorex coal tar shampoo. [..] I don’t want someone to catch a whiff of my expensive perfume and assume that I have a severe dandruff problem!!
  •  It smells like hot asphalt, antiseptic, rubbing alcohol, and tuberose.
  • first contact- menthol, toilet bowl cleaner, fake flowers- cannot get my nose far enough away from my wrists.
  • performance art more than perfume.

For the sake of balance, I should point out that Basenotes has 5 negative reviews, 7 neutral ones, and 23 very positive ones. I’m relieved that I smell few of those things that so plague the negative reviewers — or, at least, not to any comparable degree. (And I most definitely do not smell asphalt or grandma’s mothballs!) I do, however, completely understand the comparison to brand new tires. It’s extremely faint on me, but it is there. And I like the smell as a whole. I definitely consider it to be a work of genius, especially intellectual, and I enjoy certain aspects of it a lot. I’m just not sure I would reach for it, let alone frequently.

The genius of Tubéreuse Criminelle is that it has essentially deconstructed the tuberose flower down to its molecular essence, then separated those notes, and put them all together as individual prisms that — somehow — manage to make the whole even more intense than the original flower. Apparently, there is an organic compound called menthyl salicylate in tuberose (as well as some other plants) which is the basis for oil of wintergreen. So, in short, tuberose naturally produced a medicated wintergreen note, albeit a subtle one. Given that tuberose is also considered to have a very rubbery element to its heart, it’s clear that Lutens and Sheldrake have intentionally sought to emphasize the individual components of tuberose.

The perfume is, thus, like a shattered prism where each broken piece is then put back together to create an even richer, but slightly “off”, sum total. A good example of this is the opening where I smell jasmine and a few other notes, but no actual tuberose. None! At least, no tuberose the way it is in scents like Fracas, Michael Kors by Michael Kors, and most other white flower scents. I smell all the separate and individual components of tuberose, but not the flower itself. That comes later.

After the first 30 minutes, the menthol recedes, and the tuberose emerges along with a definite touch of orange blossom. After another hour, Tubéreuse Criminelle is all soft, creamy and (to my nose) heavenly tuberose. There are hints of hyacinth and lingering traces of the jasmine, but any alleged Marlene Dietrich-like black whip has now turned into the gentle caress of white flowers.

The duration of Tubéreuse Criminelle and the shortness of each developmental phase is much worse on me that it seems to be on others. On my skin, that revolutionary, hugely contradictory and very “off” opening of heady narcotic flowers and wintergreen soon fades. I think Uncle Serge simply does not design florals for my perfume-consuming skin chemistry. An hour and a half in, Tubéreuse Criminelle is white flowers with mere touch of what was once much, much more forceful “lively coolness.” I hear varying reports of just how long those opening notes last on people; those who despise the perfume obviously feels it lasts an eternity, while those who love it lament its short death. All I know is that the perfume’s truly metholated opening lasted only about 20-30 minutes on me. The first  full 1 to 1.5 hours on me, it was a mix of faint wintery coolines and heady flowers. Then it became pure white flowers (with the hyacinth becoming much more dominant) and a faint touch of vanilla from the styrax/benzoin.

One type of Styrax tree which creates the resin used in Tubereuse Criminelle.

One type of the styrax tree which creates the resin used in Tubereuse Criminelle.

In terms of sillage or projection, it’s quite impressive at first. Tubéreuse Criminelle only started to fade about 2 hours in, which is a hell of a lot more than what I can say for Serge Lutens’ A La Nuit. I would place T/C  closer to Serge Noire in terms of sillage and longevity on me, than to some of his other perfumes. Tubéreuse Criminelle became close to the skin about 3.5 hours in, which is again impressive for a Lutens, in my experience. And the whole thing lasted about 5.5 to 6 hours on me.

The best way I can really sum up my personal Tubéreuse Criminelle experience is in photos. I expected it to evoke this:

CS for Vogue

Claudia Schiffer for Vogue.

And I expected to respond like this:

naomimeisel1

Naomi Campbell by Steven Meisel.

Instead, it opened for just a short 20 minutes like this:

Vogue 2005 -AJ

before turning much more into this:

angelina-jolie-vogue-jan07-07

And, by the end, I felt like this:

AJ

There is nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, it makes Tubéreuse Criminelle a much more approachable tuberose scent for those who previously feared anything to do with the flower.

I think that I’m absolutely in awe of the genius behind Tubéreuse Criminelle’s almost avant-garde deconstruction of the underlying flower and of its prismatic construction. Intellectually, the theory behind this makes me adore it. In real life, and for actual wearing… not so much. Beyond the sheer brilliance of its creation, it’s intriguing, yes, and there is something about that opening which makes it stay in at the back of your mind. But, ultimately and in its final moments, it’s really not all that interesting. If I owned a bottle, I’d wear it — on occasion. I simply can’t see myself reaching for it like a drug addict in need of his one pure solace.

I see nothing about fire and ice, I see no dominatrixes (not even in those first 20 minutes), and I certainly don’t see Marlene Dietrich with a whip. (Oddly, however, I actually could see her wearing this on occasion, but it wouldn’t be the first scent that came to mind when thinking about that legendary icon.) In some ways, I feel almost offended by the comparison to Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire is one of my favorite poets and he would scoff at the Lutens’ website line of “let’s give the flowers back to evil” after smelling Tubéreuse Criminelle. There is nothing evil about the perfume — not the way it is on my skin. Metholated white flowers don’t arise to the level of almost malevolently decaying inner rot; and there is too much sweetness, warmth and light with the jasmine, hyacinth and the other notes. But Tubéreuse Criminelle is revolutionary. And it is also complete genius.

This review is for my brave friend, Teri, who is always an explorer of the senses and who foolhardily buys $300 Bell Jars without even a review!

Details:
Perfume: Unisex. Men definitely do wear this.
Cost: $140 for 1.7 fl oz/50 ml or $300 for 2.5 fl oz/75 ml in the famous bell-jar shape. Both available on the Serge Lutens website. In general, Serge Lutens is also available at fine retailers like Barney’s, Lucky Scent and a few other places. I’ve even seen it sold on Amazon. Sample vials to test it out can be bought at Surrender to Chance, Lucky Scent, and The Perfumed Court.

Perfume Review: Guerlain’s notorious Mahora (and Mayotte)

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Elsa Benitez and Ayers Rock in Australia

I have a perpetual tendency to root for the under-dog. And I’m also naturally inquisitive, especially about things that are notorious. Which brings to me to Mahora, the beleaguered, endlessly trashed, and notorious last fragrance of Jean-Paul Guerlain for the House that bears his name.

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Mahora – the bottle for the Extrait version

Common reactions to Mahora range from “Worst. Perfume. EVER!” to comments about mosquito repellents or suntan lotions. Luca Turin — that endlessly acerbic perfume critic (with whom I often disagree, by the way) — apparently compared this to a $200 plug-in air freshner and called it Guerlain’s worst fragrance. It’s a fragrance sometimes nicknamed “My Whore,” due not only to its pronunciation in certain accents but also, undoubtedly, due to its over-ripe nature. And, yet, there are also numerous raves about its lushness and its heady, fearless, almost comfortingly exotic character. How could I possibly resist seeing what all the fuss was about?!

Mahora

Mahora in the Eau de Parfum bottle

Mahora was released in 2000 in Eau de Parfum form as an homage to the island of Mahore (or Mayotte) where Guerlain has plantations of jasmine and ylang-ylang. It is a tropical, slightly fruity, super floral with an oriental dry-down. It is also the least Guerlain-like fragrance imaginable!

That difference probably explains, in part, why it was a complete and an utter bomb in the marketplace; Guerlain buyers used to things like Jicky, Shalimar or even, Jardins de Bagatelles, were undoubtedly bewildered by such a Hawaiian island fragrance.

Quietly discontinued just two years or so after its debut, Mahora was later re-released in 2006 with a name change. It was now called Mayotte and was included in Guerlain’s images (1)Les Parisiennes collection (supposedly with a significant price increase as a result). You can still find Mahora easily and relatively inexpensively on eBay (where I bought my bottle) for between $15 and $60, depending on size and seller. Mayotte, in contrast, is reportedly available only at the Guerlain store in Paris and at Bergdorf Goodman in New York where it retails for $270. We’ll get to the comparisons between the two fragrances shortly and whether either one is worth a shot.

According to Aromascope and other sites, Mahora’s notes are as follows: orange, almond tree blossoms, ylang-ylang, neroli, tuberose, jasmine, sandalwood, vetiver, and vanilla. What almost none of these official notes include — but which almost everyone can detect — is frangipani. Frangipani is also known as plumeria, a flower common to Frangipanitropical climates like Mexico or South America but also to such exotic islands as Fiji, Tahiti and Hawaii. It has a very heavy, heady, lushly ripe, extremely sweet scent similar to magnolia, gardenia and tuberose. It can also bring to mind coconuts. (All of which make the Australian desert landscape of the Mahora commercial rather odd, in my mind.)

Frangipani is best described as an “indolic” scent, meaning over-ripe, almost to the point of decay. Tuberose is another very indolic flower which is why extremely creamy, ripe tuberose scents can — on some people — bring to mind feces or a cat’s litter box. (You have no idea how many people shy away from anything involving tuberose. If there is any scent that seems to strike fear in the heart of many women, it seems to be tuberose. I should confess that I adore tuberose and it’s my favorite flower in general.)  Indolic scents are not easy one, and combining frangipani with tuberose and jasmine was a brave, brave move. (One which apparently fell flat on its nose, judging by some of the extremely harsh reviews.) I have absolutely no idea why frangipani is not included on the official perfume notes, but there is zero doubt in my mind (and that of many others) that it’s included. In fact, I would go so far as to say that extremely indolic frangipani is the foundation to Mahora.

When I first sprayed Mahora, I did so carefully and gingerly. This is a perfume known to be a powerhouse. It’s been compared to such notoriously heady 80s blockbusters as Poison and Giorgio, or other infamously strong scents like Amarige and Opium. So I gently lowered the rather awkward blue top and gave a few squirts. And what I got was not  the expected orange notes I’d read about but, rather, green notes. Ripe, not crisply fresh, but most definitely green notes. A burst of the vetiver, perhaps? If so, this was like no vetiver I’d ever smelled because the overall result was like dirty water in a vase of rotting flowers that hadn’t been changed in a week. (Perhaps vetiver shouldn’t be mixed with tuberose by anyone but the Piguet perfumers who make Fracas. I love Fracas. This is no Fracas.)

The smell of filthy, murky, green, vase water was soon joined by coconut, sandalwood and what seemed to be almond tree. Not almond tree blossoms, but rather, the woody notes of a slightly moist, aged, possibly decaying tree bark. This too was…. unexpected and off-kilter. And it lasted a good 10 minutes or so, until it turned to a coconut sunscreen effect (mixed with the slightly brackish, rotten vegetal water scent) over a smell of buttered white flowers. Yes, buttered. As in buttered popcorn mixed with very heady tuberose and white flowers. I feel as though I’m wearing a dose of AMC Cinema’s popcorn butter mixed with white flowers and coconut. And, yet, it’s not Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, it’s not even Bain de Soleil (which I used to love) because of those blasted almond tree, wood, vetiver and green notes!

It’s perplexing. This is nothing like what I expected — which was a giant white floral with tropical elements. The initial scent is off-putting, unconventional and disorienting in the way of niche houses, like Serge Lutens. Just as his Tubéreuse Criminelle turns things upside down and on their head with a camphorous green note to the tuberose, the Mahora is very far from a mainstream, white tuberose scent in its initial opening bouts. It’s even further from most Guerlain fragrances, though I’ve seen some understandable comparisons to Guerlain’s Samsara. I think Jean-Paul Guerlain sought, perhaps, to make a tropical, exotic version of Samsara here. I simply don’t think he succeeded. (That said, I should confess that Samsara is not one of my favorite Guerlains either.)

An hour in, and Mahora is all big white flowers. It’s too exotic and tropical to be compared to Fracas or to some Estée Lauder variation. It’s got too much frangipani to really compare. It’s also starting to fade on me. I speak often of how my body consumes perfume but really, I expected this one to last! All the endless comments about migraines, monster sillage and longevity and I get maybe two hours of full scent before it starts to become closer to the skin. I think that, as the frangipani/coconut recedes and the other, softer white flowers come more to the foreground, Mahora starts to become less brash and heady. It’s calmer now, though I still smell the coconut.

Three hours in, the coconut has finally left the building and the Guerlain signature has entered. Mahora has unfurled into a creamy, vanilla with sandalwood and only a hint of the white flowers. It’s also started to develop of touch of that famous Guerlinade. “Guerlinade” refers to that Guerlain note which is a signature on most of their perfumes at the foundational element and which wafts through the dry-down with a very powdery (sometimes slightly vanilla-tinged) accord. I smell a wisp, possibly just in my imagination, of the jasmine but it’s faint. One thing is clear, however: Mahora has turned into a Guerlain oriental. All in all, Mahora lasted about 5 hours on me, which was considerably less than the enormous amount of time reported for the fragrance by most commentators.

While most commentators say that Mahora and its successor, Mayotte, are identical, there are some who disagree. The experts at CaFleureBon certainly see a difference in an article entitled “Sexy Sadie Thompson of M. Somerset Maugham’s Rain.” Another site, Aromascope (linked up above) compares the two fragrances as follows:

While Mayotte is an ode to ylang-ylang, Mahora dignifies tuberose. […]  I find Mayotte much more Guerlain-like: it possesses the same peachy heft of Mitsouko. Mahora, on the other hand, strikes me as rather aggressive and mutinous. Its sugared, almost oily tuberose seems to defy all things Guerlain, and perhaps that’s the reason the fragrance didn’t do so well. In spite of being much more refined and polished, Mayotte can hardly be called a tame and acquiescent version of Mahora – it bears but faint sibling resemblance and respectfully begs to differ. While Mahora is heady and persistent, Mayotte is soft and enveloping and has won my heart as the best ylang-ylang scent ever created.

Others sharply disagree and say that there is absolutely no difference between the two scents. Still others say that Mayotte is simply a weaker eau de toilette concentration of Mahora, though the fact that both are officially listed as “eau de parfum” seems to counter that theory.

So, is it worth trying? I’ve seen one reviewer argue that, if Mahora had been released now and under the Serge Lutens label, “as a hoity-toity luxury perfume, it would be resounding [sic] a success among sophisticated perfumistas.” I can see the point and rationale. I think I may even agree, particularly when remembering Mahora’s unexpected opening and when thinking about Serge Lutens Datura Noir. I found the latter significantly underwhelming, though it’s been long enough since I last tried it that I can’t recall all the details of why. It certainly shares a similar coconut and tuberose trait, though!

In the end, it’s a fragrance that only a white-flower lover may like and, even then, it’s not breath-taking or particularly special, outside of its history and notoriety. (For purposes of balance, my memories of the famous Serge Lutens Datura Noir, and indeed a number of his fragrances, also rank in the “not particularly special” category.) Do I regret buying a full bottle? No, not really. I rarely regret buying perfume, especially not one that is hard to find, discontinued, and controversial to boot. It’s worth it for me just to have it for my collection and for being able to know it. I also like being able to make up my own mind about super polarising scents. And, lastly, I can always find a use for some perfume or another. (With the exception of Montale’s Lime Aoud which is truly THE worst thing I have ever smelled!)

However, I would not feel that way if Mahora were not so cheap on eBay. There is absolutely NO way on God’s green earth that I would pay $270 (not including tax) for the Mayotte version. None. I bought my 1.7 oz bottle of eau de parfum for $23 or so! For that cost, Mahora is a fun, exotic, tropical white flowers oriental perfume that I can wear in winter before going to bed and when I want to mentally escape to Fiji. For $23, I get to see what all the fuss is about.

And that fuss is definitely not worth $270.