The Gold Standard: Patchouli- Chanel Coromandel

There are materials in perfumery which are damned by a couple of words. When it comes to patchouli the phrase “head shop” is the one. It refers to the endemic scent of the shops which sold paraphernalia for smoking marijuana that popped up in the 1960’s. There are all kinds of anecdotal stories for why patchouli was so prevalent. It was used to mask the pot smell. It was used to mask the unwashed smell of the clientele. It smelled cool. There is no clear cut answer to why. The downside is patchouli has lost some of its panache when it is associated with the bohemian.

Coromandel

I admit I carried this prejudice with me when I first started my perfumed path. I wanted to wear fragrance to add a touch of class not have it be the perfume of the plebian. Over the years I learned how versatile patchouli was as an ingredient. At turns herbal, earthy, resinous while being playful or serious. There is a reason it shows up in so many compositions. When it comes to The Gold Standard the perfume I consider to be the baseline for patchouli is Chanel Coromandel.

jacques polge

Jacques Polge

Chanel Coromandel was released in 2007 as part of the Chanel Les Exclusifs collection. It was one of the inaugural releases in this collection. Chanel in-house perfumer Jacques Polge collaborated with perfumer Christopher Sheldrake in designing it. This was interesting because at this point M. Sheldrake had become the de-facto in-house nose at Serge Lutens. In that capacity he had recently designed in 2005 an intense chocolate patchouli gourmand; Serge Lutens Borneo 1834. That was a patchouli of darkness and mystery. Working with M. Polge on Coromandel the patchouli is less of an enigma. What makes Coromandel stand out is it embraces the bohemian and the chic nature of patchouli in one fragrance.

Christopher-Sheldrake

Christopher Sheldrake

Coromandel opens with a bit of citrus and a bit of jasmine. It is a simple one-two before the patchouli arrives. When the patchouli does come in it is the non-head shop version. It is that cool green slightly camphoraceous version of patchouli. The perfumers add a little pine to frame these characteristics. This is a classical feeling vintage-ish perfume aesthetic. This is the patchouli I learned about smelling other perfumes. The base turns it into that head-shop accord as frankincense, benzoin and amber give anyone who lived in those times a flashback. Despite my dismissal of this as plebian previously; in Coromandel it has been elevated because it comes after the more refined heart accord. It makes it easier to enjoy the full patchouli experience the perfumers have provided.

Coromandel has 18-24 hour longevity and above average sillage.

I am usually critical of fragrances that try to have things both ways when it comes to designing around a specific material. It is a measure of why Coromandel is The Gold Standard for patchouli because it is one of the rare ones which succeeds at doing that.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Reviews Serge Lutens Section D’Or- When the Music Stops

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As a music fan there is a moment when my favorite acts eventually stop being relevant. There is that moment when you listen to the new music and realize it is not as good as what came before. Eventually the musician realizes it and goes on tour playing the hits. At that point I usually content myself with the music which captivated me in the beginning. There hasn’t been a perfume equivalent until I received samples of the five new perfumes which make up the Serge Lutens Section D’Or.

Serge Lutens was the brand of niche perfumery which represented everything I loved about that phrase. The creative direction of M. Lutens. His partnership with perfumer Christopher Sheldrake is one of the greatest in the niche sector. There are so many amazing perfumes which have come from them it is all the more disappointing to see where the brand is now. I received samples of the five new Section D’Or fragrances; Cannibale, Cracheuse de Flammes, L’Haleine des Deux, Renard Constrictor, and Sidi Bel-Abbes. For the first time I just wasn’t moved to wear any of them. I kept hoping that over time I would decide one was worth spending a couple days with but after many weeks I think the answer is no. I usually review things after wearing them for two days so these impressions are not like my normal review. I have smelled them extensively on strips and they each have claimed a small part of my forearm for a few hours. Any of them might get better if I was to bite the bullet and wear one. The truth is there isn’t one of these I want to do that with.

Christopher-Sheldrake

Christopher Sheldrake

Cannibale is perhaps the one with the most promise as it has its moments. Most of those are around a heart of myrrh, cistus, and rose. This leads to a base of incense but also intrusive woodsmoke. There is a fleeting reminder of the trademark Lutens stewed fruit but even that can’t make this more interesting.

When I reviewed the first Section D’Or L’Incendiaire I said this was perfume where it had been done before and done better by another brand. Cracheuses de Flammes is an amber rose which has been done by many before and I would say most of them are better. This is simple Turkish rose and warm amber. There is nothing special about this perfume.

L’Haleine des Dieux was so unbearable I couldn’t even bear to revisit it on the strip and I used an alcohol wipe to remove it minutes after I put a bit on my skin. Pine sap and sage provide an unpleasantly acerbic opening which falls into an unbalanced jasmine and balsam heart. Too much styrax and vanilla makes this oh for three. If I was handed this blind there is no way I would have guessed this was a Serge Lutens scent.

Renard Constrictor was the only one I actually considered wearing. The pine and the styrax are back but this time surrounding a pretty gardenia on a bed of amber and musk. As with the other Section D’Or releases there is not one iota of a new idea here just something seen many times in other brands.

Sidi Bel-Abbes should have been the one which lifted my mood. With notes of cumin, tobacco, leather, honey as the focal points this should have soared. It never leaves the ground as the cumin acts like a battering ram bowling over everything in its way not allowing for even a moment of beauty. The name comes from a French Foreign Legion outpost. This made me feel like I was in battle with it all the time.

When I can’t even bring myself to do a proper review of five new Serge Lutens releases it is sad confirmation that the music has died in the Palais Royale.

I can’t remember if I cried/ when I read about Section D’Or/ Something touched me deep inside/ The day the perfume died/ So Bye Bye Mister Serge Lutens/ drove my Fiat to the Palais but the Palais was closed/ and Chris and Serge were drinking absinthe and rye/ singing this will be the day that I die.

Adieu! It was fun while it lasted.

Disclosure: This review was based on samples provided by Barney’s New York.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Serge Lutens Le Religieuse- Freezer Burn

There are times when a perfume creative team gets too focused on a theme and in their endless variations on it keep missing the mark by a larger margin each successive attempt. I am thinking a lot about this as I have been wearing the latest from Serge Lutens, Le Reilgieuse.

Since 2010 M. Lutens in his role as creative director, along with perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, have been working on the theme of ice. Like a perfumer’s version of “Frozen” everything M. Lutens touches these days he seemingly wants to freeze. I have found little joy in these creations. Le Religieuse translates to “nun” and the press picture seems to confirm that with an abstract nun’s habit unfurling like wings behind the bottle. The note list is much abbreviated calling out only four ingredients; jasmine, civet, musk, incense. Now there is no official list but that list of ingredients sounded wonderful except I was wary of the ice that was also mentioned. Imagine my surprise when I received my sample and I spent the better part of three days trying to find any of those four notes. The ice and snow that I found and what was buried underneath seemingly suffered from the cold.

serge-lutens

Serge Lutens

There is definitely a floral in the opening moments and there is definitely a mix of synthetics encasing that floral in a block of ice. The only thing I am sure of is it doesn’t smell like jasmine to me. There are no indoles it has a high pitched fresh floral quality but it never seems like anything natural. The ice gets in the way so I feel like I am getting fragments of something which should come together. It is almost like a jigsaw puzzle of different florals. If the plan was to have them come together in the heart over incense that would have been great except there is no incense. There is something almost like elemi but again it is hazed over with frost which obscures what might be here. When I saw the note list and it said civet I was really looking forward to that. When M. Sheldrake unleashes civet in one of M. Lutens concepts something special happens. Except I don’t detect any civet. White musks? Oh yes a lot of them; all imparting that chill M. Lutens so desires.

Le Religieuse has 14-16 hour longevity and above average sillage.

La Religieuse reminded me of when I clean out my freezer and way in the back I find a frost encrusted foil wrapped object. There is a label on the outside which identifies what is inside but the prolonged exposure to the cold has had a deleterious effect on the contents; making them unrecognizable. That is exactly how I feel about Le Religieuse it seems like M. Lutens left it out in the cold too long. M. Lutens in the press release ends the text with the following, “I have told the youth within me that the white which clouded my vision was “snow”.” Right there is the truth about the recent output by Serge Lutens it is clouded by snow and it doesn’t look like there is a forecast for a thaw any time soon.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Serge Lutens L’Incendiaire- Uncle Serge Does Oud

Is a movement over when the last stalwarts capitulate and join the bandwagon? I found myself asking this a lot as I wore the new release from Serge Lutens, L’Incendiaire. Uncle Serge has steadfastly avoided jumping on the oud craze that almost every other niche line has happily embraced. I was eagerly looking to Serge Lutens return to the darker style of fragrance which has seemingly been replaced with perfumes pitched to a different market, which does not include me. L'Incendiare was described by the press materials as containing, “rare resins, saps, ambers, and tarmac”. I was excited to try something composed by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake which captured that snippet.

I have written that I thought that many of the recent releases by Serge Lutens have felt like they have played it safe looking to appeal to one specific segment of the perfume wearing audience. Those have mostly been lighter bodied compositions and I have finally come to grips with the concept that I am not part of that audience. I am the audience that “rare resins, saps, ambers, and tarmac” sounds divine to. I had expectations of something a bit avant-garde from Messrs. Lutens and Sheldrake. I was surprised upon sniffing it and wearing it for a few days that L’Incendiaire is still playing it safe but at least this time I enjoyed the effort.

L’Incendiaire is a pretty simple perfume to describe in a few words; it is a smoky oud. Now it is a smoky oud as envisioned by M. Sheldrake which makes it good. It just feels like a throwback to some of the early oud perfumes from other luxury brands where the oud was there front and center and a few dancing partners were added. These perfumes were mostly ways of showing oud to a western audience. L’Incendiaire acts like it is introducing oud to an audience that is most likely overwhelmed by oud at this point.

Christopher-Sheldrake

Christopher Sheldrake

L’Incendiaire starts off with a mix of wood smoke along with a hint of sharp acridness. The opening seemed to promise what the snippet had implied. Before L’Incendiaire can get too far afield it is firmly pulled back to the middle of the road by the presence of the oud. Myrrh is present also in what has become one of oud’s favorite perfume partners. Here is where I would have hoped for something different to skew this fairly common combination. M. Sheldrake lets the myrrh and oud smolder for hours before fading away.

L’Incendiaire has 10-12 hour longevity and very modest sillage. It is a pure parfum strength which accounts for the longevity and the sillage.

Am I happy that I got a new darker Serge Lutens? Yes I am. Am I happy it is an oud fragrance? Yes I am. Do I wish for a little more risk taking? Yes I do.

The bottom line is L’Incendiaire is an oud perfume that fully lives up to the Serge Lutens aesthetic. It just seems that other perfume houses got to this one first and did it as well or better. I am happy to have a small decant of it but this is not one that will join the other bell jars in my collection. If you like smoky oud fragrances I think you will like L’Incendiaire.

Disclosure: This review was based on a decant I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Gold Standard: Jasmine- Serge Lutens Sarrasins

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This is going to be a version of The Gold Standard where some are going to disagree vehemently. The reason for that is there really are two versions of jasmine in perfumery. Which one you like best is all about your tolerance for the more vivid notes of unadulterated jasmine. Jasmine when it is extracted also carries a significant amount of a chemical class called indoles. Indoles are a very pungent chemical and some people, like me, love them; others run away. This is why you see jasmine in both forms in perfumes. There is the straight indolic jasmine and there are the cleaned-up greatly reduced in indoles jasmine. One is a child of the night and the other is a freshly scrubbed ingénue. My choice for The Gold Standard in jasmine is a perfume which not only proudly displays the indoles at the core of jasmine but doubles down with even more skank in the base. That perfume is Serge Lutens Sarrasins.

Christopher-Sheldrake

Christopher Sheldrake

Sarrasins came out at the very end of 2007 and perfumer Christopher Sheldrake turns in one of his most simple compositions, ever, for Serge Lutens. There are five listed notes but each of them when used in their most natural form provide nuance to burn. It is instructional that if your raw materials are suitably complex you don’t need to gild the lily, or the jasmine, in this case.

Bergamot is listed as a note and it is sort of like a matador note as it is the only representative of the light in the entire development. As soon as you notice it is gone under one of the most indolic jasmines I’ve encountered in a perfume. It was exactly what I wanted as the sweet floral character is countered with a raw dirty accord. This jasmine has dirty smudges on her cheeks and her debutante days are well behind her and she is all the more interesting for it. Most perfumers would just let the indoles naturally carry the day but M. Sheldrake decides to add a slug of castoreum. It almost feels like the jasmine is growing fur as if it is a carnivorous flower in a Hogwarts greenhouse. A wonderfully redolent patchouli swaggers in and labdanum applies the last bit of intensity.

Sarrasins has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

serge sarrasins

It is almost ridiculous to say they don’t make them like they used to when I am referring to perfume made seven years ago. Sarrasins feels like a perfume which is out of step with current aesthetics and would’ve been at home on a counter containing the original Patou Joy and Chanel No. 5. For all of that it feels like a perfume unstuck from time, it also feels timeless in its uncompromising adherence to the style of Serge Lutens circa 2007. There is no other fragrance which exemplifies indolic jasmine better than Sarrasins.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Serge Lutens L’Orpheline- Lost in the Light

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When a perfume brand evolves sometimes it evolves with the perfumista who loves it and sometimes it grows away. Artists have to be encouraged to follow their muse and that doesn’t always mean that old fans will remain fans and new fans won’t try the new direction. I am one of those who is having a hard time sticking with the new direction Serge Lutens has taken over the last three years. Ever since the advent of the L’Eau series M. Lutens has decided he wants to walk in the light. My problem is I don’t want to walk in his version of the light. The latest release L’Orpheline finally made me see the light.

serge lutens

Serge Lutens

M. Lutens has said in a few published interviews that many of his fragrances are meant to pay tribute to his mother who abandoned him during World War II. Without going all Sigmund Freud a perfume which translates as The Orphan is probably dealing with some of these issues. An artist’s life experiences often make for compelling art but L’Orpheline is just painful to me. When I received my sample of the spring release Laine de Verre I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. It was full of jagged aldehydes, an overdose of cashmeran, all over synthetic musks. The worst Serge Lutens fragrance ever. In L’Orpheline, perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, recycles the aldehydes and cashmeran and this time adds in incense in place of the musk. Which is an improvement because I at least was able to wear L’Orpheline for a couple of days and I couldn’t wear Laine de Verre at all.

Christopher-Sheldrake

Christopher Sheldrake

Those aldehydes are the beginning of L’Orpheline and for me it is a collection of all of the most unpleasant aldehydes. It is overtly metallic, unnecessarily sharp, and irritating. It is an example of all of the worst qualities aldehydes bring to a fragrance. At least in L’Orpheline the cashmeran is kept a little more under control but just as in Laine de Verre I am not sure what M. Sheldrake is going for in this aldehyde-cashmeran accord but I just don’t like where it takes me. It lingers around for way too long like this before I get some relief from incense and patchouli in the base; which actually serve to remind me of other perfumes from the brand I like better.

L’Orpheline has 8-10 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Over the last three years only La Fille de Berlin has been the kind of fragrance I want and love about Serge Lutens. Everything else has been an attempt to take things in a different direction. If you have enjoyed the L’Eaus then I think L’Orpheline will be another which you will enjoy as it is that audience for whom it is made for. Alas I am not that audience.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Incense

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I often get asked to name my top 10 fragrances and of all the questions I get asked this is probably the most difficult for me to answer. There are so many perfumes out there I admire and I always fret I’ll miss one when making any list of any kind. Now that I have my own blog I feel like I should try and sort of answer the question. So once a month I’ll share my favorite things and the five I think are the best examples of that note or style. For the first version I’m going to tackle incense fragrances.

frankincense

Frankincense

Saying incense fragrances can be problematic all on its own but what I mean are fragrances where the incense note is prominent throughout. The five choices below all hit the spot when I’m craving an incense perfume.

Amouage Jubilation XXV- I have facetiously named Bertrand Duchaufour the “High Priest of Resins” as over a five year period starting with 2002’s Comme des Garcons Series 3: Incense Avignon & Kyoto he would refine his incense accord until it all came together in this brilliant luminous incense fragrance, in 2007.

censer2

Juozas Stakevicius (aka Joe Stat)- There are a number of perfumes which capture the church incense vibe with cold stone walls and smoky censers, none of them do it better than this one by perfumer Fabrice Pellegrin.

L’Artisan Parfumeur Passage D’Enfer– Most of my incense fragrances are on the heavier side and I rarely take them out as the weather turns warmer. Passage D’Enfer is the exception to that rule as perfumer Olivia Giacobetti turns in an incense that feels like it is miles away even though it is right underneath my nose. It is like an optical illusion as I expect it to get stronger every time I wear it but it just stays sheer and gorgeous.

encens et lavande

Serge Lutens Encens et Lavande- This was the Serge Lutens fragrance which made me find a way to get a bell jar flown back here to me. From the first moment I smelled the lavender, sage, juniper berry, rosemary, and incense core I was, and am continually, in love with Christopher Sheldrake’s ability to make all of that work.

Sonoma Scent Studio Incense Pure– Independent Perfumer Laurie Erickson has captured a cross between campfire and incense as Incense Pure has a glowing heart of frankincense, smoky cistus, and myrrh. This is the most comforting of my favorite incense fragrances and it immediately makes me feel better every time I wear it.

This is one of those categories where others could come up with their top five and it would be entirely different than mine and I would admire all of the choices in that list. If you need a place to begin your exploration the five above are a good place to start your own list of your favorite things.

Mark Behnke

Serge Lutens 101- Five To Get You Started

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I’ve been doing this a long time and as new brands come, and go, I tend to be there at the beginning which allows me to grow along with the perfume house. I often wonder how somebody new to the world of niche perfumery deals with some of the larger lines that they hear so much about. When you are faced with trying to figure out a place to start you generally have to rely on your best guess at what will work for you. With this series I am going to take some of the larger perfume houses and suggest five introductory fragrances as a place to start your journey. First to get this treatment is Serge Lutens.

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Serge Lutens (l.) and Christopher Sheldrake (r.)

Serge Lutens was established in 1992 and for over twenty years Creative Director Serge Lutens and perfumer Christopher Sheldrake have been creating some of the best perfumes in the niche perfume space. With over 40 perfumes released under the Serge Lutens label it is a formidable task to figure out where to start. With Serge Lutens the best place to start is truly at the beginning.

Feminite du Bois was originally created under the Shiseido label but now is under the Serge Lutens imprint. I remember smelling Feminite du Bois for the first time and being absolutely fascinated that a fragrance with Feminite in the name had such a pronounced cedar heart. The real genius here is the pairing of violet with that cedar note. The core accord is bracketed by orange and a trio of spicy notes to create a vibrancy one rarely finds and it is a hallmark of Serge Lutens fragrances that will appear time and again. Feminite du Bois underwent a re-formulation when Serge Lutens acquired it from Shiseido but this is one of those which manage to keep the spirit of the original alive.   

In 2000 with the release of Ambre Sultan this style would become more refined with another inspired pairing of herbal notes with a warm amber. Bay leaves, coriander, oregano, and angelica root provide a feisty contrast to the languorous warmth of amber made even warmer with the additional resins of benzoin, styrax and a full suite of balsamic notes. This is often the fragrance which turns many into amber fanatics.

sa majeste la rose bottle

Also in 2000 Sa Majeste La Rose shows M. Sheldrake’s adeptness with a simple rose soliflore. By using an opulent Moroccan Rose as his nucleus he then sends into orbit around it lychee, clove, and honey to impart a mobility to the rose which elevates it to something much more than just a soliflore. Sa Majeste La Rose is one of the most versatile entries in the entire Serge Lutens line perfect for a wide variety of uses.

One of the hallmarks of the Serge Lutens style is a “stewed fruit” accord which pops up frequently. In 2004’s Daim Blond it shows up swathed in cardamom, orris, and suede leather. You will swear there are dried apricots in the note list, they aren’t listed but they are there, and this is a good place to see if you like “stewed fruit” in your fragrance.

Five O’clock au Gingembre is my last choice as it shows the skill of M. Sheldrake with a gourmand in the Serge Lutens style. An exquisite tea accord leads to a mix of gingerbread, ginger, and cinnamon which have an unusual warmth that will make you think a tray of gingerbread cookies are cooling somewhere nearby. It slowly settles into a honeyed cacao and vanilla finish that manages to keep from turning into treacle and always stays terrific.

Serge Lutens is one of the perfume houses that really produces quality fragrances year in and year out and if you’ve been needing a place to dive in the five above make for a good place to introduce yourself to Uncle Serge.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of these fragrances which I purchased.

Mark Behnke