Monday, October 6, 2014

Serge Lutens Part Two

If the perfume as product were the end goal, it would be of no interest to me. When perfume is not a vehicle for the things that I hold dear to my heart, to my heart and soul, then it might as well be a salad dressing (especially since I do not even eat any!). 
(from an interview with Serge Lutens at Kafkaesque

In yesterday's blog I introduced Serge Lutens, and briefly explored woody and oriental perfumes. So, as promised, today's post will explore the florals, incense-related perfumes and some of Luten's more eccentric offerings...


In aromatherapy, floral absolutes or essences are sometimes referred to as 'euphorics', i.e. uplifting, encouraging a happier, or even transcendent state of mind. As it happens, my sister practices aromatherapy as part of her work as a therapist, so there have always been essential oils around for me to test and try.

There's nothing quite like natural vetiver with its smoky green earthiness to relax frayed nerves - it would be my first choice as a bath oil if I had a scary situation to face the next day. Florals have an entirely different impact though, it's true that rose absolute has a soothing, balancing quality, though uplifting at the same time, in contrast jasmine absolute's full animalic sensuality can be both uplifting and aphrodisiac, or confidence-boosting in effect. It's rarely given its full-on animalic personality in contemporary perfumery mind you, and there's quite a difference between Sambac and Grandiflora jasmine.

For example, if you try perfume classics such as Patou's Joy you might be aware of a urinal scent (most likely Grandiflora), then on the other hand Dior's Diorama veers more towards fecal (Sambac). In contemporary perfume though, these animalic aspects are often isolated, tempered with other notes or removed altogether to focus on jasmine's greener 'prettier' qualities.

One of the most renowned jasmine perfumes among perfume lovers is Luten's A la Nuit. While I know that this contains a blend of at least three jasmine absolutes, I'm only guessing that it's most likely Sambac jasmine, since it doesn't have the urinal aspect of Grandiflora (which I'm personally not keen on).

To describe Sambac as 'fecal' is not as alarming in perfumery as some might imagine. It really depends on its companions, and in A la Nuit, Sheldrake (Luten's in-house perfumer) has blended jasmine with grenadine (fruity), clove, benzoin (cosy/warm wood resin) and a clean musk (some musks are simply there to add longevity and have an almost soapy scent).

On first spray it's quite intense, with a camphorous, ripe banana fruitiness that feels quite powerful and almost reminds me of acetone, but within ten minutes it settles into a heady, uplifting authentic jasmine blossom effect that reminds me of the scent of jasmine bushes in the evening, somewhere warm, probably not the UK!

It's almost simplistic in its pure jasminey-ness, so it's not one of those abstract super-elegant French style perfumes which lend an aura of refinement. A la Nuit's effect is more like a blast of pure, unadulterated summer. It's definitely uplifting, if you like jasmine (one perfume reviewer described it as 'death by jasmine').

In this sense it's a classic Lutens floral - with a 3D personality, very authentic. Whatever your thoughts on jasmine, there's no doubting the quality.

Others prefer Luten's more abstract, arguably more refined take on jasmine - Sarrassins - it's a far more complex perfume with aspects of leather, developing into a more abstract, gentle floral blend into its heart notes.

Luten's Fleurs d'Oranger is an equally characterful take on orange blossom, though tuberose and jasmine play supporting roles.

Orange blossom absolute is mildly animalic, slightly milky in feel, very rounded and with a subdued soapy orange citric scent.

It's often confused with neroli which is also part of the orange tree flower but neroli is a distillation rather than an extraction (making it more citric in feel, hence its popularity in summer eau de cologne).

The addition of tuberose and jasmine pads out orange blossom here for a far more floral effect - in fact more like actual orange-blossom flowers before extraction (extraction processes don't usually retain the character of the real flower, which requires skill and blending by the perfumer). Tuberose in particular always has a 'fleshy' 3D oily/waxy petal effect (when it's strong, as it is in Piguet's Fracas, it reminds me slightly of petrol). In Fleurs d'Oranger there's also a fairly subtle note of cumin. Some find it quite distinct, but to me it just adds a subtle, spicy edge to what might otherwise be a typically pretty floral perfume. There's also nutmeg, citruses and hibiscus, but in general the effect is a floral statement so orange-blossom-esque that you can almost imagine it leaves a visible trail of sunny yellow behind you! It's definitely pretty, and very feminine, but not delicate, or indeed too 'clean, although into dry-down it becomes more mellow.

When it comes to roses, Lutens offers a choice between the classic powerfully lemony-fresh tea rose of Sa Majeste la Rose, the softly earthy beeswaxy Rose de Nuit and the velvety opulent La Fille de Berlin

Wearing La Fille de Berlin feels like cloaking yourself in deep crimson velvet, I find it somehow medieval in feel, like a damask-draped bed chamber

It's a rich fruity rose, with touches of violet and freshly crushed pepper, and a lingering note in the long dry down that reminds me of sweet wood ash - the powdery white remains of a wood fire, which all adds to the idea of an Elizabethan lady's chamber.

To quote Luten's text which accompanied its launch in 2013; A flower grown under the ruins, cut off from the world, it appears before your eyes; to all of us to open our eyes. I'm not sure whether Luten's story or the concepts behind La Fille de Berlin - the spirit of female survival in a war-torn city - influence how the scent is perceived, but I do think this is one of the most beautiful rose scents I've experienced. Perhaps it says something about the survival of love amidst cruelty - roses are romantic symbols after all, but the spicy pepper and nostalgic violet steer this away from innocent, pretty ideas of love and say more about roses aflame!

Other Lutens florals of note are Tubereuse Criminelle in which Lutens heavily enhances tuberose's menthol/camphorous heady aspects before the perfume settles into a classic fleshy tuberose with spicy hints, Nuit de Cellophane - a burst of soapy, heady, peachy florals which is perhaps more conventional in feel than his other florals and Un Lys - Luten's version of lily. Lily (and also lily of the valley) is a synthetic note in perfumery since it's very difficult to extract enough absolute or distillate from real lilies, so perfumer's interpretations vary quite widely. Lily of the valley tends to smell quite soapy (not least because the synthetic has been used so often in soap and cleaning products!) whereas lily tends to be slightly creamier/spicier in feel. I quite enjoy lily perfumes (read my previous post on lily perfumes Here if you like) and don't find this Lutens version to be among my favourites Again, it's slightly conventional - clean and pretty.

Photograph, Serge Lutens

Being the experimental artist that he is (Lutens was a famous photographer for Vogue in the 80s, also a dancer) Lutens can't be expected to remain within the realms of perfumery convention!

Even when they're not particularly palatable to me, I love the fact that Serge Luten's perfumes experiment with the unsettling, even ugly aspects and effects of perfume.

I mentioned l'Orpheline in part one of this Lutens blog, and I really can't think of a better description than that offered by a commenter on another website: 'malfunctioning android accord' - genius! It has a weird woody musk, combined with a strange electrified incense which does recall faulty electrics. With this perfume Lutens wanted to say something about detachment, reaching for intimacy but being denied. I seem to remember text which mentioned his childhood, and its lasting legacy; being halfway to the moon. Very poignant. If this is Luten's take on childhood abandonment, I'd like to offer him a warm blanket and a mug of cocoa if I ever get to meet him, though no doubt he'd shun such facile comforts!

Bas de Soie -  meaning 'silk stockings' - a strange floral woody perfume with overtones of hyacinth redolent of bathroom air fresheners, lent an extremely odd sulphuric quality which reminds me of the eggy aroma that remains on a plate that's seen scrambled eggs. I'm very mildly allergic to egg, so it might just be me that gets egg, rather than silk stockings, from Bas de Soie

Fille en Aiguilles - (Daughter of needles) Begins with the scent of unlit incense then grows increasingly cosy, until it's as if you're wearing the powdery ash of natural pinewood.

La Vierge De Fer - inspired by Joan of Arc, this is a shining metallic incense/lily evoking Joan of Arc on the battlefield in her shining armour with lily representing the purity of her faith, and incense her religion, or possibly...the pyre? To quote Luten's accompanying text;  She will give birth to our most beautiful monsters. That is how, a little rusty by dint of doubts, my steps have rejoined La vierge de fer (the Iron Maiden); that lily amongst the thorns.

Iris Silver Mist is Lutens in poetic Goth mode, since iris (or orris root as it's called in perfumery) is ultra-enhanced here and its earthy/inky/starch aroma is perceived as somewhat sad, nostalgic or even funereal for some, but for others almost comfortingly rooty - it reminds me of roast parsnips and carrot juice - natural and earthy, I don't find it haunting as some people do.
Last but not least, Lutens range also extends to 'comfort or gourmand scents' - perfumes which relax and soothe the nerves or, if they're 'gourmand' give a comforting feeling, reminding us of being in the kitchen or feeling nourished. A few of the best known being Chergui -a tobacco/hay accord which feels cosy and slightly traditional, like a fedora-wearing 1950s dad, and Jeux de Peau a blend of sunny apricot, wheat and milk combined to wholesome effect, Five O'clock Gigembre - warming gingerbread, and Rahat Loukoume - Turkish Delight with almond/cherry aroma.

I've left out many, many other perfumes, and as mentioned this is intended more as a whistle-stop tour of Lutens most well-known perfumes. If you're intrigued though, and want to explore further, many other bloggers have written about or interviewed Serge Lutens. I recommend the following...

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