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 fragrance. Chergui is the best tobacco/honey/amber fragrance. Bois de Violette is the most perfectly balanced woody floral. Muscs Koublai Khan is the musk to top all musks. Ambre 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.
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 Loukoum – seriously? 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.
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 Rouge – nothing 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.
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 Noir – Patty 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).
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…