Tea at Buckingham Palace. That is Serge Lutens‘ goal and inspiration for Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre. It is a cozy, versatile, unisex fragrance that takes woody oriental notes to the edges of the gourmand category in a symphony of milky tea, candied ginger, honey, dark chocolate, spices and woodsy notes. It’s not revolutionary or particularly complex, but it is quite lovely. Even better, it is a fragrance that is currently heavily discounted for US buyers on a variety of different sites as Serge Lutens is discontinuing this fragrance from his American rotation.
We’ll get to the discontinuation issue shortly but, first, the perfume itself. Serge Lutens describes the scent as
Tea at Buckingham Palace.
Centered on candied ginger, this fragrance is a ritual ceremony.
It caters to the quicksilver in us, to our imagination dressed in white gloves.
Top notes are tea and bergamot; middle notes are candied ginger, cinnamon and woodsy notes; base notes are dark cacao, honey, amber, patchouli and pepper.
I’ll be frank: nothing about this scent evokes a formal, regal, reserved, diamond-clad, white-gloved Queen Elizabeth II to me (or any other British royal for that matter). In this instance, that is a very good thing because this is not an aloof, distant, haughty or baroque scent. Instead, it is an infinitely cozy scent that covers you in a light, soft veil of sweet, spicy notes like your favorite, creamy cashmere sweater.
Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre opens on my skin with fresh, zesty lemon that quickly turns spiced from the lightly smoked woods that feel almost like cedar. For a split second, the lemon note feels a little like the start of a man’s cologne but the impression is fleeting and the citrus is soon warmed by the woods and by the advent of ginger. The latter is simultaneously like the fresh ingredient and like its candied, crystallized version. Hints of cinnamon (and something that feels like cloves) also appear, along with the subtly orange undertone to bergamot.
The citrus notes are lovely but, alas, a little too fleeting for me. Within minutes, they are overshadowed by far sweeter tones. There is rich, dark honey which is surprisingly airy and light in feel, and never thick, cloying or excessively sweet. The honey is tinged with a dark chocolate element which is chewy and rich like a dark ganache, and subtly sprinkled with cinnamon powder. Dancing along the edges are quiet touches of patchouli, black pepper, and amber.
The whole thing may sound like a very heavy combination of elements, but the perfume is extremely light, beautifully well-blended, never overdone, and surprisingly soft. It projects very little beyond one’s body even from the start, and just gets closer and closer to the skin as time goes by. The very discreet notes cover you in an airy cocoon of spiced, candied ginger infused with other, alternating elements and, while it tiptoes to the very edge of the gourmand category, it never really crossing over.
One reason may be the more oriental dry notes. Even apart from the cedar-like woods, light black pepper, and dry spices which undercut some of the sweetness, there is the key issue of tea. At the ten minute mark, Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre starts to evoke a lovely cup of milky tea. It’s not strong and black like Oolong or a much richer Chai, but soft and mild like the more fragrant Earl Grey. On my skin, alas, the note isn’t particularly strong or long-lasting; it vanishes after less than thirty minutes. On others, however, the bergamot, citrus and tea notes seem to last quite a decent amount of time.
As time passes, the perfume subtly changes. At the twenty-minute mark, the pepper, patchouli and cinnamon become more prominent, the ginger becomes much less candied, and a subtle note of beeswax makes its appearance. Then, forty minutes in, the wood notes start to become much more significant. There is almost an oud/agarwood-like element to the note. It’s quietly smoky with a faintly chilled, mentholated, peppered edge. I suspect that is due to the combination of cedar-like wood with its occasionally evergreen undertones and the patchouli which can have a lightly mentholated aspect. At least, it does whenever it is handled by Christopher Sheldrake; I’d say mentholated notes are his signature! Here, there is nothing camphorous, unpleasantly medicinal, or even rubbery like pink bandaids; there is merely a definite cool, chilled aspect to the patchouli and woodsy notes. It serves to further undercut some of the sweetness of the perfume which is now far less honeyed and much more dryly chocolate-y in nature.
For the next few hours, different notes wax and wane in prominence, but the core elements remain fundamentally unchanged. By the end, Five O’Clock Au Gingembre is predominantly a light, sheer mix of: candied ginger; dusty dark chocolate; gauzy amorphous amber; and subtle patchouli. To my surprise, it’s not very sweet, especially as compared to that very honeyed opening. In fact, I would say that the final hours are actually a bit dry in nature due to the slightly powdery nature to the dark cocoa.
Another surprise was the sillage and duration of the scent. Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre is very, very, soft. The sillage is low from the start and becomes close to the skin in as little time as an hour. For those who like their perfumes to be discreet and unobtrusive, that will be a definite bonus; for others, like myself, that incredible shortness of time may be an issue.
The duration was also problematic for me. I may have perfume-consuming skin, but Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre definitely clocked in at the low-end of the scale by just barely reaching the five-hour mark. To be honest, I actually thought it had vanished after four hours, but some very determined, obdurate sniffing detected faint traces lingering on a few parts of my skin. So, I’ll say that it’s five hours in length, even though the majority of the scent disappeared on me after four. I have had much better luck with many of the other Lutens fragrances. One of my friends who is a hardcore Lutenista has this theory (with which I agree) that the lighter the colour of Lutens’ juice, the lighter its duration. And Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre is an extremely watery (though very pretty) light-brown colour.
Despite the longevity issue on my particular skin, I definitely enjoyed Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre. And I think others would too, unless they disliked sweet notes that seem to be “foody” in even the smallest way. It’s incredibly versatile and wearable — every day and throughout the year. Its lightness and low sillage makes it eminently suitable for even the most conservative office environment. And, it is also very unisex, though a few women have found it to be a wee bit too masculine. (I suspect that is because of the woodsy and peppered undertones that appear after an hour.)
Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre is also a great deal at the moment, particularly for American buyers. As noted earlier, Serge Lutens discontinued this scent from its US retailers in 2012 and, as a result, it is hugely discounted at a number of places. (Full pricing information and details below, including links to places that ship internationally.) However, the perfume is currently available on the Serge Lutens website and will continue to remain there for the foreseeable future. Oddly enough, despite the repeated and widespread discontinuation comments, Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre is still available on the Barney’s website. I have no idea how long that will last, but why spend $120 with possible tax when you can buy the perfume for $87 with no tax and free domestic shipping within the US? Who doesn’t love a bargain?
In short, Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre may not take you to have tea with the Queen at Buckingham palace, but (to mangle the old song) it is definitely tea, ginger & sweet sympathy.