Un Lys (Serge Lutens)

Well, here we are at the end of SergeFest, and not a moment too soon. Thirty-one days to review 17 fragrances, all by a single perfume house... what in the name of hell was I thinking?  Talk about March Madness...  Soccorri, Maddalena!

Christ, I'm beat.  Even last year's Guerlainapalooza, launched in the record-breaking heat of August, didn't seem nearly as taxing. Granted, I had only thirteen fragrances lined up for Guerlainapalooza... but still. At least six months will have to pass before I attempt another lunatic feat like this one.  I might do a brand-name week here or a nose-specific week there.... but another month-long marathon? Fageddaboutit.

I'm only too glad to break my journey with Un Lys: a simpler scent there never was. No mythic symbolism, no psychological tension, no novellas-told-through-scent. Just lilies... lots and lots of lilies. They smell nice. God! It's so great to say just that, and nothing more!

Well, maybe a little more.

Thank you, all of you, from the bottom of my heart for sticking with me through SergeFest. We had some laughs, didn't we? Yeah.... good times, good times. But now I'm going to go back to spraying on whatever perfume my hand happens to touch, posting reviews purely at whim without any thought of sticking to a theme or meeting a deadline or achieving a goal... at least until September 2011, when I launch SergeFest 2: Electric Boogaloo.


Scent Elements: Lily, green notes, vanilla, musk

Sarrasins (Serge Lutens)

For anyone suffering indigestion from the surfeit of "hot young bloodsuckers" currently overrunning pop lit, it's a mercy to know that there's still such a thing as goth for grownups. Today, I'm wearing Serge Lutens' Sarrasins while reading Suckers, British author Anne Billson's hilarious yuppie take on the vampire genre.

Set in London during the avaricious late eighties, Suckers presents Violet, a 300-year-old Moldavian Lilith who discovers that high-fashion magazine editorship is the modern vamp's path to power.  Rechristening herself 'Rose Murasaki', this crisply carnivorous Anna Wintour wannabe utilizes her position at the helm of a high-end glamor rag to plan a global vampire apocalypse. (Call your agent, Emily Blunt.)

Every vampire has its own Van Helsing. Violet's is Dora, a freelance "creative consultant" à la Edina Monsoon, only with sharper cheekbones and a more spiteful tongue. (Call your agent, Keira Knightley.) Dora's one of the few mortals privy to Violet's true identity who has still been allowed to live. Keeping tabs on her glamor-puss nemesis is one of Dora's favorite hobbies, along with sponging party invites off her friends and prank-calling her enemies. But when she discovers Violet's plot to seize control of all Britain, Dora's vampire-hunting instincts kick into overdrive. She accessorizes accordingly. (Thanks to Madonna, enormous bejeweled crucifix pendants are IN!)

What tips Dora off to Violet's schemes? Well, there's the launch of her prestige fragrance, Kuroi by Murasaki (Tagline:  "They'll die for the woman who wears it"). And there's a string of disturbingly avant-garde fashion spreads, starring waxen-skinned, fanged models in various states of haute couture undeath. These, more than any other bloody evidence, convince Dora that Violet & Co. intend to go mainstream in a major way.

In Billson's novel, the photographer who orchestrates this visual assault is a pathethic egotist named Dino. In real life, who else would Violet have chosen to promote her vision but the sublime Serge Lutens?

A look through two coffee-table retrospectives -- L'Esprit Serge Lutens: The Spirit of Beauty (1996) and the simply-titled Serge Lutens (1998, both by Éditions Assouline) -- reveals a stark, modernist aesthetic that would suit the vampire New World Order to a tee. If you have associated the Lutens name solely with Orientalist romance up to this point, these images will either alienate or fascinate you-- or both, as they did me. Page after page offers stylized portraits of mannequin-like females-- their masklike, cruelly denuded faces plastered with inscrutable crimson smiles. Like life-sized harlequin puppets, they project both the amorality of Weimar-era Berlin and the deathly-cold menace of a corpse in rigor mortis. These are pinup models of a deep-space alien nature, poster girls for necrophilia.  They radiate neither life nor love-- whimsy, yes; elegance, yes; but not warmth. They force two questions: What kind of sick puppy is Serge Lutens? What kind of sick puppy am I?

Likewise, Serge Lutens' Sarrasins could double as "Kuroi by Murasaki"-- kuroi (黮) translating as "dark, opaque, secretive", and murasaki (紫) translating as "the color purple" (AKA Violet).  This potion of intense amethyst hue (perfect!) simultaneously extends a caress and a backhanded blow to the wearer, both encapsulated in a jasmine note of extraordinary potency. But like an ancient entity who need not stoop to undignified force to make its authority felt, Sarrasins' jasmine catches the wearer in a deceptively light and frightening grip. One could be forgiven for feeling as though one were trapped in the paws of a giant, silent cat bent on toying with its prey before delivering the killing bite.

Though the volume never increases, the tension does, as a smoky creosote-and-carnations note asserts its hold. (If Andy Tauer ever decides to do jasmine*, imagine the legion of addicts that will inspire!) Even toward the end, when a civilized musk takes over, Sarrasins' restraint (rather than its might) leaves the most lasting impression. You walk away with the distinct feeling that you've gotten off easy, all due to a will (or whim) bigger than your own.

Scent Elements: Jasmine, carnation, musk, coumarin, woods

Santal Blanc (Serge Lutens)

Aaaahhhhh... this is more like it. Or is it?

Mysore sandalwood and fenugreek together make an attractive noise, but Santal Blanc lasts no longer on skin than your regulation album cut-- three minutes, tight and sweet, then gone in a welter of radio static. Something about it seems oddly two-dimensional, as if an idea made a good start in the mixing bottle but dug its heels in when asked to replicate its magic on skin.

Oddly, I see where Santal Blanc could dovetail with Francis Kurkdjian's Eau Noire, which it preceded by a full three years. I bet that if I layered the two, they would meld together like lifelong bedfellows, two halves of a predestined whole. The effect would peal like a temple bell, or vibrate like Tibetan throat-singing-- a multi-dimensional, resounding drone that settles in one's belly and shakes one's foundations.

But alone, Santal Blanc is only half the story and half the song. Like any snatch of melody, it haunts but does not satisfy.

Scent Elements: Sandalwood, cinnamon, fenugreek, pink pepper, iris, jasmine, rose, benzoin, copaiba

Rose de Nuit (Serge Lutens)

I'm in the home stretch of SergeFest, and sadly, I haven't much to say today. Am I succumbing to fatigue? (Nah.) Is my nose becoming jaded?  (Not hardly.) Maybe I'm simply itching to graze in other pastures after a long month spent in Lutens territory. But anyway: Rose de Nuit.

The first fifteen minutes was pure granny panties-- a dank, geriatric floral accord reminiscent of silky polyester worn against sweaty skin dusted with cheap scented powder. It almost drove me to scrub. I'm glad I didn't, because the impressive clarity and appeal of the subsequent musk-and-amber accord saved this fragrance from the old age home. Still, the overall experience was as conceptually disturbing as a perfume designed for Mrs. Doubtfire. Manly chest hair on a motherly bosom: shudder.

Yet what I liked about Rose de Nuit, I liked a lot. I cast about in recent memory to try to find a similar experience to which I could compare it, coming up only with this: Rose de Nuit is Rose of Cimarron played backward. Instead of an exciting virile opener ceding to a rote feminine smell, it was the other way around. I'd rather end on an accord that I like than on one I don't, and Rose de Nuit didn't disappoint in that regard.

But Lord, how I look forward to April.

Scent Elements: Rose, jasmine, amber, apricot, cypress, musk

Miel de Bois (Serge Lutens)

The other day, I woke up with a headache the size of East Texas. I knew I was in for it the moment I opened my eyes: even in the pre-dawn darkness of our bedroom, I could clearly see that old migraine aura rippling around my head like the northern lights. By eight o'clock I was prostrate, racked with nausea and hissing like a Komodo dragon at the tiniest increase in light. Not even a double-strength pot of coffee could make a dent in that white-hot wall of pain.

Finally around four o'clock the beast began to loosen its grip. I got up, managed to stay up-- a promising start.  I hazarded a warm shower, gingerly running my fingers through my wet hair (which during the migraine had felt alive to me, like Medusa's snakes). Afterwards (temples still aching, stomach still iffy, but clean, dressed, and standing vertical) I became aware that almost a full day had passed without fragrance.

I'm already sick to my stomach, I reasoned. I might as well put on Miel de Bois.

5STARS Small

My ambivalence towards bees and honey began in childhood, when I watched my father suffer anaphylactic shock following a sting. He survived, but my child's mind converted the experience into a tidy case of melissophobia. It only increased when, at fourteen, I drizzled some local organic honey on my morning yogurt and ended up blue in the face from a severe histamine reaction. Until that moment, I'd been able to mentally separate honey from the terrifying little creatures who produced it. I'd loved its mellow sweetness, its sensual viscosity on the tongue-- but no more. Honey equaled danger.

Until this allergy faded away in my mid-twenties, the only thing not hazardous about honey was its scent-- and even then, the pleasure was dubious. As many others before me have observed, honey doesn't always smell like flowers. It smells like fermented urine, rutting goat, organic putrefaction, AND flowers-- a rather sickening combination, but one that I perversely crave. I once blew most of a holiday souvenir allowance on a tiny vial of honey absolute, which I was strictly forbidden to open in the family car. When this ran out, I mail-ordered tiles of natural beeswax, which has the strongest, sexiest, and most stomach-turning aroma imaginable. Products claiming to be made with honey, such as Lush's Honey I Washed the Kids, cannot approach its queasy glory.

Perhaps the uneasiness provoked by the scent of honey is hard-wired into the ancestral brain. After all, wherever one finds one honey, one also finds millions of little buzzing maniacs, kamikaze-like in their willingness to give their lives for the hive. Honey and beeswax also played a role in the Egyptian mortuary arts, being prime ingredients in the mummification process. An ancient queen might go through life perfuming herself with honey, then journey onward into death surrounded by its lascivious reek.

Sex, death, and the mindless hum of the swarm-- no wonder the scent of honey raises our hackles.

5STARS Small

The first time I sampled Miel de Bois, I gagged-- I kid you not, my friends. My sample being small and made for dabbing, I swiped an infinitesimal amount on my skin and did a quick wrist-rub.  (Spray it?  Are you insane? Even the smallest nebulized spritz of Miel de Bois would most likely be construed by those around you as gaseous warfare!)  That top note of piss-soaked latrine! Was Lutens kidding? Let the record show that Miel de Bois, and not Muscs Koublaï Khän, is the true anti-L'Eau Serge Lutens. This was the filthiest thing I had ever smelled-- and I mean that as a compliment.

Repeated wearings (always in miniscule increments) gradually enabled me to steel myself against that shocking opener. Be patient, and Miel de Bois eventually transforms into a creamy, sensual floral with a graceful heliotropic ripple. Granted, you have a good half an hour of nausea to endure before you get there-- but once you get there, ooooh. I would not wear Miel de Bois in public for a million dollars. But I'd sure as hell wear it to bed.

If I believed in reincarnation, I would say that Miel de Bois summons my inner Nefertiti. Its archaic scent of honeyed oudh pushes every atavistic button on my control panel. If you buried an amphora of Miel de Bois today for explorers to dig up a millenium from now, they would tremble with fear upon opening it and throw themselves upon the mercy of the old gods. 

It's brilliant.

It's a slap in the face.

It's beautiful beyond articulation.

It's absolutely vile.

I absolutely adore it.

I hope you will, too.

Scent Elements: Ebony, guaiac, oak, agarwood, honey, beeswax, iris, hawthorn

Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens)

Iris seems to come in two forms: rich, bready and warm or raw, watery and cold. Though I haven't nearly explored the full range of available iris perfumes, I can safely say that I prefer the full-fat version to the pale, low-calorie tincture any day of the week.  Between the two, a link must exist-- some sort of connector between earth and raincloud. Why not lightning?

Iris Silver Mist (great name, seemingly arrived at via some sort of collaborative word-game, like "Miranda Sex Garden") is an ozonic take on iris to which La Myrrhe clearly owes a stylistic debt.  I knew La Myrrhe could not have sprung whole from the head of Osiris; it had to have an antecedent, a source point from which its eerie DNA descended.  Iris Silver Mist is that source.  Neither as sepulchral nor as soulless as its cousin of one year later, it nevertheless is a bit of a cold fish-- placing it, at least nominally, in the 'tincture' category of iris fragrances. What saves Iris Silver Mist from primordial chill is its sense of suggestive friction-- rather like the ghostly electric crackle that sheer nylon stockings produce when the wearer crosses her legs.  The skin underneath may be alabaster-pale and chilly, but the blood coursing deeper down is reliably hot.

I imagine that Iris Silver Mist is a treat in the heat of Indian summer.  At present -- with the temperature barely cresting fifty degrees Fahrenheit on a good day, notwithstanding the bitter bite of the ever-present March wind -- Iris Silver Mist leaves me cold.  However, when storm clouds rise and the flicker of lightning heralds the advance of warmer weather, she may lay her cool hands on my forehead... and I will feel content in her presence.

Scent Elements: Iris, galbanum, cedar, sandalwood, clove, vetiver, musk, benzoin, amber, incense, oakmoss

Five O'Clock au Gingembre (Serge Lutens)

How can one get more "run time" out of a short-lived fragrance?  Spray it on freshly-moisturized skin, on fabric (such as a handkerchief or the inside hem of one's skirt), or on one's hair.  Whereas the natural oils exuded from skin will weaken or alter a perfume's scent over time, clean hair will absorb scent readily and radiate it with great fidelity for a considerable length of time. 

The 'hair' method turned out to be ideal for Five O'Clock Gingembre, which wilted on my skin faster than a Southern belle during an Alabama heat wave.  If I hadn't applied it to my coiffure, I wouldn't have known it had ginger in it at all.  And even then, it only lasted a scant three hours, which hardly gave me time to appreciate its charms.

Granted, I was charmed.  What I smelled entranced me enough that if I had Five O'Clock Gingembre in sufficient quantities, I'd dip my hairbrush in it every single morning.  But I can get nearly the same effect by whipping up a batch of my own citrus-ginger shampoo or ginger-spice spritz, as detailed below.  (The immediate benefit?  My concoctions will set you back about three dollars, whereas Five O'Clock au Gingembre costs anywhere from $95 to $120 per 50 ml. bottle.)

Citrus-Ginger Shampoo

Grate 1 small knob of fresh ginger root into a ceramic or glass bowl.  Pour 1/2 cup of boiling water over it and let it steep until cool.  Strain off liquid into a clean cosmetic bottle.  Add 2 oz. Dr. Bronner's Citrus Liquid Castile Soap and swirl gently to dilute.  Wash hair with mixture and rinse well with cool water.

Ginger-Spice Spritz for Clean Hair

Grate 1 ginger root into a ceramic or glass bowl.  Add one cinnamon stick and several cloves.  Pour 2 cups of boiling water over contents of bowl  and let it steep until cool.  Strain and transfer into a spray-pump bottle.  Mist clean hair with mixture and let air-dry.  Brush from root to tip to release scent.

Scent Elements: Ginger, tea, bergamot, cinnamon, cacao, honey, amber, vetiver, patchouli, pepper, vanilla, woods

Féminité du Bois (Serge Lutens for Shiseido)

1. A second-wave feminist once archly told me, "Baby, we bled for you in ways you'll never know." I did not doubt it, having read all about it. Her point -- that I took for granted the liberties she'd struggled for decades to ensure -- could not be refuted. But as I muttered to myself later out of earshot: What does any of THAT have to do with ME wearing my Doc Martens to work?

2. Simply for having been born too late, the young are accused of ingratitude. They may never fully grasp the fearsome struggles which produced the world that is their home. Yesterday's swords have already been beaten into plowshares; today's revolutions take place on the playground. Che Guevara is little more than a face staring coolly from a hundred thousand t-shirts.

3. I imagine that modern people living at the foot of the Acropolis look up at the Parthenon each day and think to themselves, "Uh huh. Still there."  (Or perhaps they don't look up at all.)

4. When I traveled across the ocean to live on the slopes of Haleakalā, the sight of that massive volcano towering over my neighborhood scared the living hell out of me-- for about a week. Then I became inured to its presence like pretty much everyone else on Maui. Only on two occasions did Haleakalā challenge my acquired nonchalance: once, when a freak snowstorm capped it in ghostly white, and again when I traveled to the summit to look down into its crater. So deep was this caldera that full-sized cumulus clouds formed down inside it. As I stood on the observation balcony above, one such cloud detached from its fellows and began to travel up the rocky basin toward me. One minute, it was a hundred yards below; the next minute, I was inside a world of blinding white. As the cloud passed, I turned and watched it float blithely away into the blue Hawai'ian sky. I doubt that I will ever again in my life experience such a sense of tongue-tied awe.

5. Too many perfumes to count owe a debt of thanks to Féminité du Bois' innovative fruit-and-cedarwood accord-- yet I take it so for granted that it almost seems old hat. When has it not been a feature of the olfactory landscape? Really, what's so special about Féminité du Bois?

6.  How did we live before it?  What would we do without it?

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, cedar, peach, plum, honey, beeswax, clove, cardamom, cinnamon

Encens et Lavande (Serge Lutens)

The herb lavender is the original untouchable. It projects such an aura of holistic cleanliness and vigor that it can be paired with the raunchiest animalics and still emerge uncorrupted. Like Sugar, the virginal whore of The Crimson Petal and The White, lavender "can surrender to a deluge of ordure and rise up... her smile white as absolution."

This hasn't stopped a century's worth of perfumers from trying to drag lavender down into the gutter.  Kilos of civet, castoreum, and musk have been dedicated to the campaign, the result being a string of masterpieces (Jicky, Mouchoir de Monsieur, et. al.) in which lavender remains cheerfully unsubdued by the burlesque costumes it's been conscripted to wear. The crucial difference is found in the top button that lavender keeps buttoned, the sensible, opaque stockings that stay on even when all else has been stripped away.  As any ecdysiast worth her salt knows, sometimes it's not what you take off, but the little you leave on that pushes desire to dangerous levels.

Encens et Lavande is lavender's day off from the dance hall.  Alone in her sparsely-furnished room, free from the trappings of the hedonistic life, she can finally relax and be herself.  Frankincense and sage may seem like an austere alternative to all the spangles and sequins, but it's just as she wishes.  She reminds me of the geisha who told National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb that her secret dream was to become a Buddhist nun.  Both professions, she pointed out, required discipline and the subsumption of the ego-- but as a nun, at least, she'd no longer have to tolerate people staring at her.
Scent Elements: Lavender, incense, amber, clary sage

El Attarine (Serge Lutens)

Serge Lutens' El Attarine is named after the Medersa el-Attarin, a 14th century religious school located on the perimeter of the perfume souk in the Moroccan city of Fes. It could also have been named Halwa, because it smells like the carrot-orange sweet served in Indian and Near Eastern restaurants.  It could also have been named Arabie Eau Légère, because it appears to be Arabie's sweet-citrus base duly deprived of all the stuff that made Arabie interesting.  I get the citrus and honey parts (good god, I smell like an orange LifeSaver!) but the immortelle (a beloved note I can normally zero in on no matter how homeopathically small the dose) is lost on me-- unless it's that fleeting ghee note that once more reinforces the impression that the post-tandoori dessert course has arrived.  It's not bad, it's just simultaneously incomplete and redundant, like Guerlinade-- a smell, to be sure, but not a perfume. 

Scent Elements: Citrus, immortelle, honey, musk

Douce Amère (Serge Lutens)

Solanum dulcamara, AKA woody nightshade or bittersweet, is a perennial shrub native to Eurasia but commonly found flourishing in backlots and alleyways worldwide. Its violet-and-gold "shooting star" flowers are beloved by children; its juicy scarlet berries are popular with birds, and its long, straggling vines -- once believed to repel the Evil Eye -- were considered indispensable by shepherds, who fashioned them into wreaths to protect livestock from passing malediction.

Like many members of the Solanaceae order, bittersweet (douce-amère in French) contains the toxic alkaloid solanine in its berries.  Death by solanine poisoning is a horrid way to go.  Nausea, vomiting, and wracking pains lead to hallucinatory delirium, bodily paralysis, and cardiopulmonary arrest.   In past centuries, witnesses to such a dramatic demise naturally blamed it on witchcraft-- and woe betide any healer, however competent, who administered bittersweet with too free a hand.

There's no danger of either bewitchment or overdose with Douce Amère, a rather sad perfume hiding behind a wonderfully menacing name.  It's nothing more than the half-strength precursor of the vastly superior Un Bois Vanille, a fragrance as fetchingly bitter as it is compellingly sweet.  The two perfumes share anisic and woody notes as points of intersection, but whereas Un Bois Vanille heads off bravely into blistering-hot dark-roast territory, Douce Amère stays safely decaffeinated-- and boring.  All I could say after applying it to my skin was "So what?"

Un Bois Vanille came three years after Douce Amère and accordingly has three times more of everything its predecessor could boast-- including emotional resonance.   You might as well get the complete version straight away, and bypass the half-baked prototype.

Scent Elements: Cinnamon, artemisia absinthium, anise, lily, jasmine, tiare flower, tagetes, cedar, musk

Daim Blond (Serge Lutens)

I looked upon Elisabeth as a being from the old world of the Gods. She was Artemis--cold, beautiful, and arrogant. I saw her in fancy passing through the forests with her hounds hot on the trail of the deer.... her ivory loveliness gleaming in the moonlight...and in those scented solitudes she was like a Pagan called back from the Past.
-- Countess Marie Larisch
Has the very first sniff of an unfamiliar perfume ever reminded you of a person you've never known? I've only ever read about Elisabeth of Bavaria, but I find her impossible to banish from my mind-- particularly while wearing Daim Blond, a strange sort of leather made to suit a strange sort of girl.

In truth, strange doesn't even begin to describe Elisabeth, who could out-crazy any modern celeb with both hands tied behind her back. As the child bride of the future Emperor of Austria, the shy and sheltered "Sisi" abruptly found herself thrust before thousands of judgmental eyes. Her latent eccentricities flowered with a vengeance, and the young Empress spent the next four decades giving everyone around her the willies.

Elisabeth's litany of bizarre personal rituals provide a textbook illustration of body dysmorphia. No flaws, changes, or signs of age could be tolerated. Compulsive hair-brushing (lasting up to three hours a day) culminated in the paranoid numbering of fallen strands. Nightly raw-meat facials preserved her flawless complexion, while starvation diets, brutal exercise regimens, and extreme corseting kept her body childishly slender. Despite four pregnancies, her waist measured an inhuman eighteen inches-- three inches shy of the current world record. Every new outfit she wore demanded hours of precise fittings; even then, the Empress was never satisfied-- even opting to be sewn into her clothes at each wearing to achieve a wrinkle-free fit. Since standard ladies' undergarments spoiled the severe fit of her clothes, Elisabeth donned cuirassier-style leather leggings to maintain an ideal silhouette. But even when perfection had been achieved, her extreme horror of being looked at drove her into hiding -- under umbrellas, behind thick veils, in the anonymity of travel or the isolation of wilderness retreats.

Only when she mounted a horse did Elisabeth's demons grow quiet. Equestrian sports -- both haute école dressage and the more flamboyant "trick" riding espoused by her late father -- had provided emotional ballast since childhood.  In contrast to the stultifying Viennese court, riding symbolized a liberty of movement and self-expression essential to this wild child's equilibrium.  On horseback, her neuroses seemed to melt away; her sexuality -- normally encased in ice -- at last flowed freely.  She became one with her mount, wordlessly directing its every movement with a rare and delicate empathy that witnesses found remarkable.

This mesmerizing centaur-like creature is the "Sisi" which Daim Blond summons to mind.  Subtle, feminine, and unsettling, this unusual fragrance replicates the scent and feel of premium doeskin complete with the slightly creepy quality that leather retains when put to fetishistic use.  Tailored skin-tight, at once comfortable and claustrophobic, this "yellow suede" covers every inch of the body while revealing it to an almost indecent degree.  Thus encased, the woman in question (though doubtlessly hot-blooded) is off-limits to outsiders; she both tantalizes and denies.

As if the bouquet of leather wasn't suggestive enough on its own, perfumer Christopher Sheldrake underscores its seductive quality by adding apricot-- a sweet-yet-acidic fruit whose scent implies the female anatomy in its most intimate and startling sense.  Before you blush, know that there's nothing prurient about this accord.  A touch of chilly heliotropin reinforces a sense of virginal modesty and reticence to which base sensuality would be anathema.  The woman to whom this reserve belongs is a divine Diana intent on her quarry, with no time for the mundanity of mortal love.

Elisabeth famously despised perfume, denying even her ladies-in-waiting the pleasure of wearing it.  But in those days, florals dominated; the grand era of leather fragrances would not come until after her death in 1898.  How would this uptight tomboy with a passion for the saddle have enjoyed Cuir de Russie, Jolie Madame, or Bandit?  Not as much, I wager, as she would have liked Daim Blond-- the queerest of the cuir.

Scent Elements: Hawthorn, iris, Ceylon cardamom, apricot, musk, leather

Chergui (Serge Lutens)

Pushing to write and post a perfume review every two days takes a toll on a girl, especially since daily life has an insidious way of pursuing its own agenda regardless of the reviewer's intentions.  Luckily for beleaguered bloggers, Chergui removes the burden by smelling simply excellent in all ways.

You'd be right in thinking that you've encountered this honey-tobacco-musk accord before.  The entire genre of cultured, gentlemanly, brandy-and-Woodbines-by-the-mantel masculines fairly teems with it.  But are any as well-executed, as addictive, as faithful as Chergui?  The day's obstacles become more surmountable, its battles more winnable, when one has the succor and sanctuary of such a fragrance to bolster one's resources... and such is its longevity on skin that you will throw in the towel long before it does.

This may be wishful thinking, but wearing Chergui is like having a virtual armchair into which to sink gratefully during the odd moment of downtime.  The fire is blazing, the biscuits are neatly stacked on the plate, and the sherry's an Amontillado, circa 1950...

Relax.  It's quitting time.

Scent Elements: Tobacco leaf, honey, orris, sandalwood, amber, musk, incense, rose

Bois et Musc (Serge Lutens)

A look at commercially available synthetic musk compounds reveals the breadth of their use in perfumery.  Musks function as fixatives, scent diffusers, smoothing agents, or additives designed to boost what the industry calls "skin acceptance" of a fragrance.  A select few with pronounced, pleasant aromas are dubbed "blenders"; these may be deliberately featured in a composition for the sake of their scent alone.

Bois et Musc's cedar element is very plain.  Less apparent is its musk, which curiously appears not to be of the "blender" variety.  It vanishes quickly, or so your nose tells you.  You might think you're anosmic to it (and perhaps you are; musk molecules are the Sherman tanks of the olfactory world, forever getting stuck in the tollbooths of our nasal passages).  But rest assured, it's still there--projecting a warm, animalic, and above all invisible aura from the skin's surface long after the cedar has died away.

Perhaps there's a touch of so-called "blackberry musk" in the mix, as evidenced by a fruity note early on, but the rest is all clandestine-- not so much a perfume as an invisible blanket of comfort.  If your nose wishes for more diversion, spray another perfume on top of Bois et Musc.  But deep down, your soul will side with your skin-- I guarantee it.

Scent Elements: Moroccan cedarwood, musk

Bois et Fruits (Serge Lutens)

The other night, while organizing my decants by perfumer like a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, I found myself contemplating the great Sophia Grojsman. Before me sat Lancôme Trésor (1990 redux), Boucheron Jaïpur (1994) and Lagerfeld Sun Moon Stars (1999)-- all essays on the theme of fruit compote and roses.  Out of these, I personally prefer Jaïpur best.  It's a slightly more evolved version of the Trésor idea, while Sun Moon Stars comes across like a blurred third-generation copy... which is probably moot, since all three fragrances smell remarkably similar.  I went so far as to dab a bit of each on my arm so that I could sniff each in succession.  The verdict?  An uncanny resemblance-- indeed, they're almost identical triplets. 

How is that Grojsman -- creator of more bestselling fragrances than any nose alive -- spent an entire decade puzzling over the same basic accord, creating perfume after perfume in its likeness?  What about it eluded her?  Why did it haunt her so?

As the official nose of the Lutens line, Sheldrake engaged in similar exploratory maneuvers back in 1992, using his own Féminité du Bois as base camp.  However, unlike Grojsman, he proved willing to radically alter the original accord, releasing each variation as a completely distinct fragrance. This takes a certain measure of cold-blooded confidence.  To borrow a phrase from NASA, Sheldrake is perfumery's original "steely-eyed missile man", ready to deconstruct his own vehicle right down to the nuts and bolts in order to further the long-range mission.   From this audacious beginning, he has gone on to compose over sixty fragrances, some hits, some misses... but no mere flankers. For while he may play with a motif for a time, his gaze is ever fixed on horizons unexplored.

Bois et Fruits (the closest of all Les Eaux des Boisées to the original Féminité du Bois) uses the same starting point as Jaïpur-- a dark, dense compote of peaches, plums, and apricots. Yet Sheldrake's fragrance resists the zaftig tendency of Grojsman's and achieves a dry, saturnine, almost masculine tone. Rather than radiating plump and juicy good health, his fruit is clearly past its prime; cooked down into an undifferentiated fructose-rich tar, it defies you to find it appetizing. Compounding the challenge is a cedar note as sharp and plangent as lemon zest. Somehow, our pâtissier has arrived at a novel confection-- constructed of mismatched (and possibly unpalatable) ingredients, but curiously compelling on the dessert plate.  

It can't possibly be any good, you think.  Why is my mouth watering?

The qualities that attract me to Bois et Fruits are the same as those which attracted me to Jaïpur:  this odd juxtaposition of edible and inedible.  Perhaps this same contradiction is what keeps Grojsman and Sheldrake on the move, searching for the elusive and inexplicable.  She takes the long way to the destination, on foot.  He zips straight there-- as if rocket-launched.

Scent Elements: Cedar, fig, plum, peach, apricot

Bois de Violettes (Serge Lutens)

Someday, if I have a spare afternoon free of all other obligations, I'll carry out a rating-by-rating comparison to see what percentage of the time I disagree with Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.

Granted, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide is my Bible; on troublesome days, I rely on it to restore inner calm and equilibrium much as Flora Poste relies on The Higher Common Sense. I am pleased when T&S' recommendations prove satisfying, and I'm chuffed when my own flash instincts about an unfamiliar fragrance (such as K de Krizia or Duc de Vervins) find support in their camp. But I resist depending too slavishly upon their expert opinions. Sometimes a girl wants to smell a fragrance blind and make up her own damn mind.

Unfortunately, notions like these become the proverbial elephant you've been told not to think about, so of course you do-- and you start wondering if you have the fragrance reviewer's version of oppositional defiant disorder, wherein you find yourself dissing a fragrance just because Luca 'n' Tania love it so.

Luca Turin, for instance, gives Bois de Violettes five stars. I can only give it three. It's nice enough-- a tart, woody violet with lush greenery and an intriguing air of existing only in the shade. Bois and violettes are both definitely present, joined by a suede note that would smell great on a highwayman, as long as he wears it with a wink.  (I'm thinking of Adam Ant circa Stand and Deliver.)  It lasts longer than Iris de Nuit and Cuir Pleine Fleur put together and seems to have more depth and dimension, too, offering up bizarrely entertaining new notes (confectioner's sugar, cedar, glue) every minute or so.  I liked it.

But that's all I can say.

I could try wearing it a couple dozen more times to see if maybe I'm just being contrary, but I don't really think there's any need to go to such an extreme.  Bois de Violettes simply didn't float my boat the way it floated Luca Turin's.  And that's okay.  If he and I ever get stuck together on an especially slow-moving escalator in Harrod's, now we'll have something to argue about.  

Scent Elements: Cedar, violet leaf, violet flowers

Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens)

More of a basis for a scent than a main premise, perfumery amber -- that public-domain blend of labdanum, benzoin, styrax, and vanilla found in every "Oriental" fragrance -- is used to suggest the golden sunset glow (if not the actual presence) of its fossilized namesake. Because amber cleaves to a fixed formula from which nothing can be subtracted, the perfumer's task is to add the notes which will distinguish it from other ambers-- or else bury it altogether.

Often the amber's quality dictates the extent to which it is subsequently embellished. A poor amber can be concealed -- at least until drydown -- with flowers and spices heaped high. Conversely, a truly fine amber can withstand a higher degree of austerity without danger of the perfumer being accused of stinginess. In such a case, fewer additives allow for unimpeded appreciation of amber's merits.

Ambre Sultan begins with a saturated labdanum with sweet, nourishing, honeylike overtones. The few notes chosen to adorn it are worthy of contemplation, if only because they are so adamantly savory. Oregano (Origanum vulgare, a cousin of marjoram and distant relative to mint) contributes welcome hints of salt and butter, while bay laurel introduces both expansive warmth and greenwood bitterness to the accord.

The effect strikes me as both medieval and medicinal, as if Ambre Sultan were some sort of curative handcrafted by a wandering root-worker who has managed to stay one step ahead of the Witchfinder General. This impression is strengthened by odd snuffed-candle notes of hot tallow and sooty smoke-- an effect I assumed had to be a mirage until it repeated itself identically on the second, third, and fourth wearings. One can imagine this scent pervading a sacred place, an alcove where time has stopped and where secrets are hidden amid the flickering light of fragrant oil lamps.

Even when muted by time, Ambre Sultan retains a distinctive richness that is a pleasure to take to bed after living within its aura all day. Each night that I spent with my cheek pillowed on my forearm, I found myself turning to sniff my wrist and smiling. Sweet dreams, indeed.

Scent Elements: Labdanum, coriander, oregano, bay leaf, myrtle, angelica root, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla