Lutens Love?

Photo by JC.
The fragrance house of Serge Lutens may be the most generally-admired among the fragrance community.  You could make a case for Guerlain (or Creed, if you’ve been reading at Basenotes) being that house, but overall, I think there’s been a great deal of adulation pitched in Mr. Lutens’ direction.

There’s been some blame, too, though that seems to have subsided from the peak of indignation about the time that L’Eau Serge Lutens, a super-clean fragrance purporting to smell like a freshly-ironed shirt, was released in 2010, to the horror of many a perfume blogger.  “Serge has sold out!  ‘Clean’ rules us all now!  Perfume is going straight to hell!  I might as well take my toys and go home!”   Mind you, I’m not making fun of those horrified bloggers.  I do hate the idea that fine fragrance is going the way of the laundromat, and anything distinctive and startling – like the quintessential Serge Lutens fragrances – are frowned upon by the public at large.  I hate the idea that any fragrance that doesn’t smell “fresh and clean” might disappear from the face of the earth. 

But I did get the impression, reading various perfume blogs and comments on the fragrance forums (Makeup Alley, Basenotes, Fragrantica), that Serge Lutens was the End-All and Be-All of the scented world, the perfect modern iconoclastic perfume house.  Over and over again I read:  Iris Silver Mist is the best iris fragranceChergui is the best tobacco/honey/amber fragranceBois de Violette is the most perfectly balanced woody floralMuscs Koublai Khan is the musk to top all musksAmbre Sultan is the best amber fragrance ever.  So every time I’ve gotten the opportunity to test a Serge Lutens fragrance, I’ve done so.  For me, that often means buying samples, or begging samples from friends, since there’s no SL distributor anywhere within several hours’ drive of where I live.  The results have been very, very mixed.  

Image from Fragrantica.com.

I absolutely adored La Myrrhe from first sniff of my sample – the first Lutens I got my hands on.  I often see reviews of it that call it “medicinal,” “cold,” and “inexplicable,” but right from the beginning I loved its glowing, scintillating, light-filled quality and the incredible sense of  introspection and peace and comfort I feel when I wear it.   I saved pennies for a 2ml decant.  Then I saved for another one, and waited for a 20% off sale at the decanter.  I now own about 25 milliliters of it, and I cherish every drop.  I wear it when I really, really need a hug but can’t flop on the couch in lounge pants, with an enormous latte, some shortbread, and a favorite paperback.    I wore it to my grandmother’s funeral this past December, and it was such a reminder of inner quiet and strength and beauty. It lifted my eyes.

I was surprised to find, when testing other Serge Lutens fragrances, that I didn’t have strong feelings about most of them.  I loved La Myrrhe, and a few others I despised,  but by and large, I was emotionally unmoved.  It still strikes me as odd that I don’t have more of a love-hate reaction to most of the scents, because they are indeed often described as odd and unpredictable, with twists that make them intriguing and unique among all the J’Adores and Cashmere Mists and Clean fragrances of the world.  It is possible, however, that I haven’t tried enough of the ones that have what people tend to call the “signature Lutens stewed fruit accord.”  Because I’ve had to seek out samples, I lack familiarity with much of the line, and the scents I’ve chosen to sample have tended to be the less polarizing ones.

Here are super-miniature reviews of the Lutens scents I have tried:  Pink, I vaguely like.  Green, I vaguely dislike.  Purple, I hate and despise to the depths of my being.

Bas de Soie – a hyacinth made of aluminum.  In a lab.  Chilly.  Made my back teeth hurt, and yet I did not hate it.
Bois de Violette – neither enough woods nor enough violet for my taste.  Ehh.  I don’t get the reason Luca Turin loves it so much.
Borneo 1834 – Patchouli chocolate. Kill. Me. Now.
Chergui – tobacco, honey, spices and the musty smell of old people’s houses that my grandmother used to drag me to for visits when I was a kid.  Just to the left of Just Right – it goes wrong enough that I can’t wear it because it makes me angry.
Clair de Musc – clean, soft, pretty, boring.  I’d rather have Jovan Musk for Women.  Especially at the price.
El Attarine – La Myrrhe with fruit and wood, and therefore all the clear white light of LM is smudgy.  Not bad, but not my favorite.
Feminite de Bois – nice.  I’d rather have my old Dolce Vita, though – it’s happier.
Gris Clair – another Kill. Me. Now. Lavender nightmare of unending depression.  Eeyore in a bottle.  I had to scrub it off before I decided to end it all and put my head in the oven.  (Luckily, I did remember that I have an electric oven.  And the Tide+unscented deodorant worked.)
Iris Silver Mist – carrots and gray iris. I like it and find it cheerful rather than austere, but it isn’t love.  This is the icy goddess of iris?  Nope.  Iris n’ Carrots, two nice little pigtailed girls playing  “Miss Mary Mack.”
Louve – cherry cough syrup/baby powder.  I recoiled.  I gritted my teeth for 50 minutes before scrubbing.  WTH did they bottle this for? Could successfully be used to torture me.
Nuit de Cellophane – nice.  Forgettable.  When this one was released, when I was still pretty new at this sniffery deal, I was puzzled at how annoyed all the bloggers were with a “pretty” Serge fragrance.   Now I see the point: sure, it’s nice.  But so is J’Adore L’Absolu.  “Nice flowers” has been Done.
Rahat Loukoumseriously? AlmondrosecherryPlay-doh weird.
Rose de Nuit – squeaky rose/geranium with galbanum chewy as dried-up marshmallows.  A Mean Girl.  Smells like one of those glittery-eyed fake smiles that really means, “I’m only biding my time until I can crush your ovaries in my hand.” 
Sa Majeste La Rose  – nice. Pleasant. Pretty.  Upscale version of Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose.  I don’t need it.
Sarrasins – super-indolic jasmine and… wait.  My brain just exploded.  I can’t figure it out.  However, I don’t really want to try to figure it out.   Poop, jasmine, and something that smells like skin?  Wait, my brain just exploded again.
Tubereuse Criminelle – Menthol cough drop + rotting raw chicken of death, followed by sweet pretty tuberose.  NO.  NO NO NO.  Gah.  Kill. Me. Now.
Un Lys – nice.  Forgettable. I much prefer DK Gold, or even FM Lys Med.

And recently tried Jeux de Peau – gave me the giggles and made me hungry by smelling like slightly-burnt palmier pastries drizzled with butter and maple syrup, before settling into this really nice sandalwood.  It’s clever and amusing and intelligent, and if it were priced like a Smell Bent (where it would fit right in), I’d buy it and wear it, no matter if people wondered where the French toast smell was coming from.  At Lutensian prices, I think I’ll give it a pass.  Also, Gaze said he liked the way it smelled, but it gave him an instant headache.

Photo by MS.
The ones I haven’t tried:  Blue, I’d like to try.  Orange, I’ll give it a fair trial.  Brown,I’m not looking forward to.

A La Nuit – not promising, because I’m not much of a jasmine fan.  This is the “death by jasmine” one.
Ambre Sultan – the herbs and patchouli make me very very wary.
Arabie – I can only take curry in very small quantities.  I’m skeered.
Bois et Fruits – I might like this a lot, as in my imagination it’s a bit like Mauboussin.  OTOH, I already own some Mauboussin.
Bois et Musc – I have a feeling this will bore me.
Bois Oriental – Sounds boring to me too.
Boxeuses – I’m intrigued.  Could be good.
Cedre – I love tuberose.  Tuberose-wood sounds a bit dodgy, but I’d still like to try this.
Chene – might be too dry and/or masculine for me, but I’d like to smell.
Chypre Rougenothing about this one sounds nice to me.
Cuir Mauresque – not a big leather fan, either.  I love Cuir de Lancome, but that’s Leather for Wimps.  Hated Cuir de Russie.
Daim Blond – I have a sample and will definitely try.  I like apricot, and I like my leather soft.
Datura Noir – BWF fan that I am, this one might work, though it could possibly go too sweet.
De Profundis – I’m not encouraged.  “Earthy and chrysanthemum-y” doesn’t appeal.
Douce Amere – I like anise, but I dunno about this.

Funny... it LOOKS harmless. "Lavender flower" from types-of-flowers.org.

Encens et Lavande – I have a sample of this too, but I’m betting that it’ll try to throttle me within the first six minutes.  I hate lavender. (Or it hates me – instant migraine.  Just yesterday, I tested Azzaro Pour Homme, and while it smells pretty darn good, and kinda sexy even, the lavender immediately rose up and tried to smash my head with a rock.)
Fille en Aiguilles – not impressed by pine, and not a huge incense fan either.  Doesn’t sound to my taste.
Five o’Clock au Gingembre – could be good, with tea and candied ginger.  Would like to sample.
Fleurs d’Oranger – I might have a sample of this lying around.  The cumin alarms me, especially in the context of orange blossom, since I’m not generally a fan of OB either.
Fleurs de Citronnier – neroli, iris, and musk?  Probably not going to suit me.
Fourreau NoirPatty from Perfume Posse calls this “Lavender Pancake Syrup with Hookah.”  SO not me.
Fumerie Turque – another possible winner, though it might go too masculine.
L’Eau Serge Lutens – not even gonna bother. 
Mandarine Mandarin  – nothing in the notes appeals.  That said, nothing in the notes doesn’t appeal, so maybe.
Miel de Bois – I predict urinous disaster.
Muscs Koublai Khan – I predict hairy-man-sweat disaster.
Rousse – a possibility.  I like Red Hots.
Santal Blanc – another “might be good.”
Santal de Mysore – woody rum cask?  I’m leery.
Serge Noire – go read Kevin’s review at Now Smell This.  Be amused and repulsed at the same time.  Now try to get past it to try Serge Noire with a fresh nose.  (I can’t.)
Un Bois Sepia – cedar, vetiver, patchouli, and sandalwood?   I’m not enticed; in fact, I’m a little repelled, just from the description.
Un Bois Vanille – if it’s anything like the sweet-woody bits of Smell Bent One, I’ll probably like it, but I can’t imagine needing to own it since I already have a bottle of One.
Vetiver Oriental – y’all know I don’t care much for vetiver.  I predict celery disaster.
Vitriol d’Oeillet – could be good.  Could be dreadful.  My standards for carnation fragrances are very high (DSH Oeillets Rouges and Floris Malmaison).

Photo by NH.
If you’d like to read the results of my recent poll on feelings toward the house of Serge Lutens, click here.  The comments are enlightening as well, since many people spelled out which scents they liked.   An informal request for comments among some Facebook perfume friends revealed that similarly, there were quite a few fans of the line, with many more people finding it to be hit-or-miss for them.  Several people remarked that they tended to love the scents released earlier (the Bois series and ones that were described as “stewed fruit”), but haven’t liked the recent releases, with L’Eau and Nuit de Cellophanecoming in for their share of contempt.   Joe A commented that not all the fragrances work for him, but he admires the SL sensibility in making scents that are intelligent and unusual and interesting. 

I think I agree: we need more Weird-but-Wearable in the fragrance world.  I’ll quote Luca Turin in Perfumes: The Guide (yet again), in his review of Le Feu d’Issey:  “[P]erfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence.”  Yes, we need more of that, please.  I think I need to try more of the early, stranger, Lutens scents.  Whatever Uncle Serge is up to lately, I’m still interested to find out…

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30 thoughts on “Lutens Love?”

  1. Gosh, it looks like so many when you list them all out!

    Bois et Fruits I don’t remember being much like Mauboussin, but I’ve only tried it from a tester once, about a year ago. It reminded me of an herbal tea I had once made of dried fruit.

    Datura Noir is sort of forgettable, IMO.

    1. There are 56 of them. Eep. I’m up to 19 tested now.

      I don’t know whether BeF will actually be much like Mauboussin at all, I just postulate that it will be. I am familiar enough with Fem du Bois, BdViolette, and Dolce Vita to know sorta kinda what it’s about, but it does depend on that stewed fruit…

      And I’m a, a, a – a Scientist!!! Yeah, that’s it. Gotta test my theory. Oh, honey – these samples I ordered? I’ve postulated a thesis and now I need to complete some trials and gather the data…

  2. I got quite a chuckle out of some of your ‘green’ (vaguely dislike) opinions! Some of them are barely borderline ‘purple’. LOL

    This was a great read and I really appreciate the time and effort you put into the project. I suspect you’ll probably get offers to send you decants from some of your other readers (fans), but I have some of the ‘blue’, ‘orange’ and ‘brown’ ones and would love to send you samples. As we’ve discussed before…you just never know ’till you try!

    1. Well, I saved purple for the ones I’d cut off my left arm in order to never ever smell again. Ever.

      Confession time: I don’t like purple, either.

      I will be a Serge Junkie and beg for samples! Thanks so much – you are so kind to offer. Would you email me at malsnano86 at gmail dot com? You’re right, you never know until you try…

  3. Just to veer you to the right direction, Arabie is not curry. It’s spiced, honey drizzled cookies (we call them melomakarona in Greece). Santal de Mysore on the other hand is serious coconut curry on the other hand. Be careful!

    Excellent read! Thank you.

  4. I love this post, Mals. The colour coding system is fantastic!!

    I haven’t tried many Lutens fragrances, but what I’ve tried I quite like. My favorite is Serge Noir. Everyone seems to hate it…more for me! I also love Fille en Aiguilles. I have deep affection for Ambre Sultan, Cedre, Chene…I won’t go on and on…

    I hope you find some true love perfumes. I’m look forward to hearing more about your adventure!

    1. Oh, no, do go on! It’s so funny the way people’s tastes go: “I like THIS, but not THAT. I absolutely love this one, but that one left me cold, and this other one made me want to gnaw my arm off.” And then you’ll read somebody else’s list, and it’s the complete opposite.

      1. You speak the truth!
        A perfect example: La Myrrhe was an instant scrubber. It actually repulsed me. I felt like such a drama queen.

        I’ll take you up on your “oh no, do go on”. 🙂
        I’m not sure about Chergui. There is something about it that makes me uneasy. I have no idea what or why.
        Fumerie Turque smells good, but I really have to be in the mood for it. I don’t ever seem to be in the mood for it.
        Un Lys smelled “bubble gum-ish” on me.
        Sarrasins smelled like drugstore ylang ylang bubblebath on my skin.

        When a Lutens works for me, it almost feels bespoke. For that reason I will keep sampling, despite the blips listed above.

        1. Oh noes! You hated La Myrrhe! It’s okay, she can take it. She forgives you. Not everyone can serve her. (Does this mean I am a drama queen? Because really, the drama queen in my house is Taz. But LM is very, very dressy. I just have a high tolerance for/liking of that sort of thing.)

          Chergui is… odd. I liked it for most of its development, and then it went all musty, and I recoiled. So then I thought, “Well, it’s ME. I just didn’t give it a fair shot.” So I wore it three more times, until the sample spray gave out (there is a weensy beensy little bit left in there, I can see it – but it won’t spray out). But still no: musty old people’s houses in the base. Bleargh. You can’t say I didn’t try.

          I have this vague memory that you are not a white-floral gal, which might tend to doom your forays into BWF territory with Un Lys and Sarrasins. (Okay, small theory fail: I love the BWFs… EXCEPT for jasmine. But I suppose I could have predicted that I wouldn’t like Sarrasins based on my demonstrated inability to get on with jasmine.)

          When a Lutens works, it feels bespoke!! I love that concept, the way that something might have been made for you. Yes, you should keep sampling…

  5. Wow; I always forget how many Lutens fragrances I _haven’t_ tried – going down your list, there are 22 that I’ve either never tried, or have forgotten if I did try them.

    My apologies for not responding to your call for input; now I can’t help commenting on a few things here. 🙂

    Loved your reviews. “Hyacinth made of aluminum” phrase – wonderful and absolutely right, but to me that describes why I like Bas de Soie. 🙂 I always adored those aluminum glasses in circus colors that were sold in the Seventies; now I’m going to see a hyacinth in that same aluminim when I smell this fragrance. Similarly, the old-musty-house smell is dead on, and it’s why I like Chergui, as I’ve burbled about before. Lucikly, I don’t get the rotting meat in Tubereuse Criminelle, because even a freak-note fan like me really couldn’t consider that a good thing. 🙂 Mothballs and gasoline, woohoo! Rotting meat, not so much.

    Oddly, Iris Silver Mist is, to me, both (1) magnificent and (2) completely unexciting. Usually I want to own the magnificent, even if I rarely wear it, but not in this case. I think it’s because it’s merely magnificent, not freakish.

    Returning to freak notes, People of the Labyrinth own the cherries-and-playdoh territory with Luctor et Emergo, IMO, so Rahat Loukoum just seems redundant.

    I hate the two Lutens citrus-flower fragrances, and Clair de Musc, with a passion exceeding my hatred for almost any other perfume on the planet. To me, they’re not citrus, they’re incredibly aggressive, simultaneously choking-dry and choking-cloying, detergent. Powder detergent that’s been in a damp musty room, so that it’s sticky and doesn’t want to brush off your skin. Shudder. I realize that I should be perceiving these three fragrances as quite different, but they must have a common note (presumably a musk) that’s drowning the rest out for me.

    On the other hand, I adore Serge Noire, though it’s the deep drydown that I love, and I only like the top notes based on association with that drydown. It’s odd that so many people smell cinnamon in it; I don’t get any of that, and I usually focus on any hint of cinnamon because I strongly dislike it in a fragrance.

    1. SO with you on the Tube Criminy: mothballs and gasoline, pretty cool. Decayed flesh, Not. Never got over it. Still pouting.

      Oh, I hated Luctor et Emergo *plenty* – almost as much as I hated Louve. Gah. RL was lower on the weird scale for me.

      Serge Noire? I LIKE cinnamon. Hm. (Seriously, did you read Kevin’s review? Hilarious. Somebody else called it a “Tim Burton movie of a scent,” too.

      1. I love Kevin’s review. 🙂 But I still love Serge Noire, too.

        And I keep being on the verge of buying a full bottle of Luctor et Emergo, but, really, how often will I wear cherry Play-Doh?

  6. I’m going to comment on something besides the ingenious color-coded list, and point out that _this_ reflects what I love most about the world of fragrance:

    “I wear [La Myrrhe] when I really, really need a hug but can’t flop on the couch in lounge pants, with an enormous latte, some shortbread, and a favorite paperback. I wore it to my grandmother’s funeral this past December, and it was such a reminder of inner quiet and strength and beauty. It lifted my eyes.”

    No wonder you love it so.

    1. I KNOW! Isn’t it great when you find a smell that affects your emotions so powerfully?

      (Well… Gris Clair affected my emotions too. But you know what I mean – how totally awesome is it that a couple of drops of liquid on my skin can mess with my head so easily?)

  7. Hi Mals! The thing I like about Serge Lutens, whether I love, hate or am ambivalent to his perfumes, is the fact that I don’t think he really cares either way!
    I get the impression that he creates whatever he wants, whatever he feels like, despite what we all want/expect from him.
    I remember reading a post from another blogger who said that perhaps he deliberately releases a few more approachable scents then just throws in the odd, crazy one to mix things up a bit but I disagreed with that. People like to categorize and pigeon hole and I personally think, with every release, he tries to fight that idea. I think his L’Eau is a perfect example of this – his way of saying, I can do what I like and create what I want DESPITE what anyone thinks or expects of me!
    I really respect and admire that quality. In saying all this, my theory on Lutens could be completely off the mark seeing that I wouldn’t know him from a bar of soap, but anyway…

    1. You may be right. SL does not strike me as being the kind of person who has any use at all for focus groups.

      And that’s a good thing. Even though I typically find it silly that some people want to do something different – anything! different – just for the sake of being, well, different.

      In this case, Different Just To Be Different has brought the world some truly unique fragrances.

      1. Too true! I’m not a fan of people who contrive to be different either but my opinion (based on no actual facts!) is that Lutens seems commited to his vision, whether it’s considered by us to be different or not. I think he’s saying, this is what I want this to smell like – despite whether anyone thinks it’s too approachable for me or too stewed fruit-y or to rotting chicken even! I keep writing words, probably unnecessarily, and I’m probably making even less sense than before!

  8. Hi there – will send you an email as I can help you with 3 of the ones you have yet to try (Fleur de Citronnier, Un Bois Vanille and Chene). I remember when I first started reading the blogs and getting into perfume wondering who this Serge Lutens was and why there was such a fuss over “Uncle Serge”!

      1. You know, I have tried even less of them than you have and his typical stuff really isn’t my style, so I guess I still don’t see what the fuss is all about! I do love Chene though. Even contemplated buying a FB but I just have too much perfume so my decant will be just fine. The other 2 I got in swaps. UBV is nice, but nothing I need to buy and I haven’t even tried the Fleurs de Citronnier. So behind in my testing!

  9. Mals, it’s so interesting to me that you love La Myrrhe but vaguely dislike Bois de Violette. To me, they are almost the same perfume except for the violet shift in BdV. I go back and forth as to which I love more. How is this possible? Mysteries of the nose!

    I agree with you on most of the others that we both have tried, except that I do like Borneo. I’m very interested to hear how you like to Daim Blond, which is one of my favs, and generally looking forward to your next installment on SL.

    1. “Almost the same”? Whoa. You know, I did kind of waffle on whether to classify it as “vaguely like” or “vaguely dislike,” and perhaps the “dislike” part was really more of a reaction against the five-star LT review. It’s nice. It’s in no way emotionally stirring.

      To me LM is all about the sparkly aldehydes, a floral heart (I swear, I think I smell rose in there), and a sandalwood-myrrh drydown, where I got dry cedar and violets out of BdV with a few wisps of green violet leaf.

      I’ll report back on Daim Blond!

  10. Oh, Mals, you’ve made me laugh, again. You are a scientist in your need to describe and classify all the Uncle Serge scents. I love that. The part that cracked me up was your *anticipated* feelings toward scents; a sort of pre-test probabilityof like/dislike.

    I look forward to hearing your further experiments in Lutensian perfume 🙂 You’ve also made me want to try La Myrrhe, though my pre-test probability of loving it is low. . .I respect your reviews, and would give it a chance, based on your recommendation. You’ve also made me want to try Mary Greenwell’s Plum, but, phooey, TPC does not stock it. Yet. I will stay on the look out. Be well!

    1. You know, HS, it’s not so much “scientist” as it is “accountant.” Gotta classify everything.

      (Sometimes I drive myself crazy.)

      I think I always do that sort of pre-analysis, no matter what it is. You know: THIS shares characteristics with THAT, and I love THAT, so I should try THIS. (Alternately, I hate THAT, so I’ll hate THIS.) I might be less judgmental if I had good access to testers – if I could just sashay into Barney’s, or wherever it is the SLs are sold, some afternoon and sniff things, without prejudging. However, I’ve gotta buy samples or rely on the kindness of strangers. Well, perfumista friends, anyway, not strictly strangers…

      You would probably have to like aldehydes to enjoy La Myrrhe. I can’t remember if you do or not. And it is a real weirdie compared to the rest of the line. I would have said, unlike Nozknoz, that it’s completely off the Lutensian chart. It doesn’t remind me of any other scent at all.

      Huh. I thought I saw MGP at Posh Peasant, but Abigail doesn’t have it either. And neither does luckyscent. I don’t know why.

  11. I don’t just like aldehydes, I love them. No. 5, Aldehyde 44, and more–I love perfumes that sparkle. I’m Paris-bound in the next week, so I’ll make it a point to sniff La Myrrhe while I’m there.

    What’s funny to me in my perfume adventures are the things I thought I’d never like, that I later came to love. I hate sticky sweet confections, and yet love BK’s Sweet Redemption. I hated tuberose for years, but now love Carnal Flower, Nuit de Tubereuse, and Rubj. I consider myself a skank(musk) and incense fiend, and still shy away from chocolate and patchouli. . .but I’ll never say never in perfume again.

    The fun is to keep trying new things. SL has many misses for me, but the ones I love, I treasure. May your fragrant adventures continue 😀

    1. Yay, another AldeHo!! I’m sure Paris will be wonderful – enjoy! And do sniff LM.

      It is funny how you come to love things that you didn’t think you would. I know I’m usually more free to sniff things without prejudice when I have access to testers rather than hunting down samples.

  12. The color coding system is fantastic! I like this post. I have not tried all the flavors of this, but what I’ve tried that I like. My favorite is Serge Black. Am I the only one?!

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