Sidi Bel-Abbes is one of five new releases from Serge Lutens, and part of the second wave of the Section d’Or or Gold Collection that debuted last year with L’Incendiaire. The press release at the time described the series as “Serge Lutens at the culmination of his art.” I see it more as a return to Luten’s signature dark orientalism after a flood of drippy releases over the last five years, most of which I find to be icy, metallic, watery, and/or excessively clean. The Section d’Or collection differs in other ways, too: they are extrait de parfums instead of the usual eau de parfums, and their prices are not cheap (to put it mildly). Sidi Bel-Abbes and its compatriots were released at Serge Lutens’ flagship Palais Royale store in June, and I’m very grateful to a dear friend of mine who picked up a sample of it for me on a recent trip to Paris, along with one of L’Haleine des Dieux (Breath of the Gods) which I’ll cover next time.
There isn’t a lot of information out there about Sidi Bel-Abbes. I assume it was named after the Algerian city of Sidi Bel Abbès (the fragrance’s proper name even bears the same accent over the “e”), and I also assume that Christopher Sheldrake created it, just as he did L’Incendiaire, but the only official statement about the scent is a one-line description: “From a forgotten time, an erased past, all that remains in our memory is the footprint in the sand of an anonymous love.” Well, that’s certainly taking Serge Lutens’ love of obliqueness to new heights.
With L’Incendiaire, one could gather a vague sense of its notes or fragrance family from retailer descriptions, like the one at Barney’s, but few places carry Sidi Bel-Abbes or its brethren at the time of this review. I’m actually a little surprised by that. As noted earlier, the fragrances originally launched in June, but we’re in November now and they still aren’t listed on the French Lutens’ website (or on any of his other country-related sites for that matter). They were supposed to be available at select retailers (like Harrods in London) in September, and I’d heard late October for Barney’s, but neither site lists them. Only Premiere Avenue shows the new fragrances, but it says nothing about Sidi Bel-Abbes other than Serge Lutens’ elliptical, Delphic one-line blurb.
Serge Lutens always keeps his note lists secret, but the handful of early assessments for Sidi Bel-Abbes uniformly mention tobacco and beeswax, with additional variations of Russian leather, incense, cumin and/or vanilla, depending on the person.
If I were to venture a guess at Sidi Bel-Abbes’ notes based upon what I smell on my skin, my guess would be:
Red fruits, frankincense, birch tar leather, cade, immortelle, tobacco, cypriol, cistus/labdanum amber, amber-woody aromachemicals, benzoin, resins, and possibly sandalwood.
Sidi Bel-Abbes opens on my skin with tangy, barely sweetened, red berries swirling in a cloud of darkness. There is a small touch of austere frankincense, though it never smells churchy, liturgical, or soapy like the real resin, but it’s quickly overpowered by a voluminous blackness that smells like cade with its aroma of campfire smoke and heavily charred woods.
The base is a thick river of dark, smoky, and equally tarry birch leather mixed with amber-woody aromachemicals and smoky woods. The latter occasionally smell like synthetic sandalwood mixed with a large dose of something that definitely resembles cypriol on my skin. There is the same dry, coarse, almost tobacco-ish, leathered woodiness as cypriol. Once in a while, it even bears a vaguely oud-ish quality about it, though it’s a minor nuance that is far outweighed by the cypriol’s other aspects and by the overall smokiness of everything in both the top and bottom layers of the scent.
Actually, the forcefulness of the burnt forest aroma, the highly desiccated nature of the woods, the excessively tarry, coarse leather in the base, and the synthetic clamour makes me wonder if guaiacol, an intensely phenolic chemical compound, has been included as well. Whatever the actual ingredients, Sidi Bel-Abbes’ opening is centered on blackened, woody smoke streaked with small dollops of bright red berries, all atop a base of tarry leather mixed with various burnt woods and amber-woody synthetics. The sum-total effect is not only exceptionally smoky, medicinal, and austere, but also harsh to my nose. In my opinion, it’s oddly synthetic for a collection that is supposedly based on the most expensive ingredients, and bears a high price tag to go along with that claim. (More on that much later.)
Sidi Bel-Abbes shifts in slow degrees. 10 minutes in, the frankincense fades away, leaving only the abrasive campfire smoke and charred woods. The merest hint of golden sweetness appears in the furthest recesses, while the tart red berries take on a liqueured quality that is occasionally plum-like as well. At the end of the first hour, hints of immortelle begins to pop up in the background, smelling like the dried version of the wild flowers. Roughly 90 minutes into Sidi Bel-Abbes’ development, the red berries lose their liqueured quality and weaken as a whole, slowly retreating to the sidelines where a new note has appeared, a dark, almost raw tobacco. The leather, aromachemical woods, black smoke, and cypriol soften fractionally, diluted a hair by a new goldenness that is partially resinous like labdanum amber and partially sweet like immortelle syrup (though it never smells like pancake maple syrup).
Inch by inch, the immortelle blooms during the second hour and eventually leads into Sidi Bel-Abbes’ second clear phase. Midway during the third hour, immortelle sweetness seeps across the smoky, woody, and leathered landscape. The result is a change in scenery, a move to the desert environs, perhaps outside the city of Sidi Bel Abbès itself.
There, a scorching sun bakes wood to a cracked, bleached shell stained with golden immortelle and its own sappy resins, then burnt to a charred crisp amidst a less billowing gale of black smoke. The black and gold landscape is dotted at the far corners by tiny dollops of red berries, while the river in the base has changed into a torrent of dark tobacco, in addition to a new resinousness, the earlier leathery birch tar, and the cypriol. The immortelle has really had a big impact, muffling the raspy smoke and loud aromachemicals to a degree. As a whole, the notes are slowly beginning to work together in a more harmonious and balanced fashion, though I still find both the cade/guaiacol-like smokiness and many of the woody accords to be too sharp for my personal taste.
Things finally click into place at the start of the 5th hour. Sidi Bel-Abbes has actually become rather enticing, probably because the amber, resins and immortelle have finally kicked into high gear, taming both the smokiness and everything else. The result is an appealing mix of lightly singed woods, golden sweetness, chewy tobacco, and richly balsamic resins, infused with balanced amounts of smokiness and leatheriness, then engulfed by a golden ambered warmth that hints at labdanum. It’s a surprisingly airy scent for an extrait concentration of such heavy materials, but I find the overall effect to be sexy, inviting, and comforting at the same time.
The only problem is that the notes are turning blurry so quickly that they’re becoming increasingly hard to pick out. Smelling my arm from an inch away, Sidi Bel-Abbes has turned into an amorphous haze of woodiness, sweetness, smokiness, darkness, and goldenness. By the end of the 5th hour, it’s hard to single out the individual elements even up close. It’s all merely black, golden, sweet, smokiness with a suggestion of tobacco and something woody weaving in and out of the background.
The one thing that seems very clear is that the resins are on the rise, slowly seeping up from the base. My guess is that Christopher Sheldrake used Peru or Tolu balsam (perhaps both) in conjunction with something like a Siam benzoin to create a spicy sweetness with the faintest undertone of cinnamon. By the time the 8th hour rolls around, the resins have not only surged to the top, but taken over, turning everything visually red-gold. Slivers of tobacco and a subtle smokiness remain, but they’re very muted, minor notes that generally lurk at the edges. What I can’t place is a mysterious fragrancy that is almost aromatic, but not quite, and almost soapy, but not quite. It doesn’t smell like the residual, dying traces of either Somali or Omani frankincense resinoid, but I can’t think of anything else that might explain it. Either way, it’s a nice touch with all the ambery accords.
Sidi Bel-Abbes doesn’t change much from this point forth. All that really happens is that it grows softer and thinner. The mysterious fragrancy slowly fades away by the 11th hour, though the touches of soapiness remain. A subtle powderiness dots the edges, but Sidi Bel-Abbes is mainly a simple blur of semi-sweet, semi-spicy goldenness until its very end.
Sidi Bel-Abbes had initially moderate sillage that turned soft after a few hours, soft projection, and excellent longevity if you kept your nose plastered to your skin. If you didn’t, you might be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t a particularly enduring parfum because it takes effort to detect the scent long before it actually died. I tested Sidi Bel-Abbes twice, always using 3 light but wide smears equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle. The fragrance always opened with about 3-4 inches of projection, and about 4 inches of sillage which grew after 15 minutes to roughly 6-7 inches. At the end of the 1st hour and start of the 2nd, the projection was 1.5 inches, maybe 2 at best, and the scent trail was about 4 inches. At the start of the 4th hour, the projection was 0.5 inches, while the sillage was close to the skin unless I moved my arms.
Sidi Bel-Abbes became a skin scent about 5.75 hours into its development, and I had to bring my nose right to my arm to detect it from that point forth. Extraits or pure parfums typically have very soft projection and sillage, but great longevity. However, Sidi Bel-Abbes was so light and soft (both in body and power) that I was sure it was going to die out around the 9th hour. It clung on tenaciously, though I was surprised with every hour that it lasted. When I say that it was the merest and thinnest coating on the skin, I mean it. So I couldn’t believe that it consistently lasted over 14 hours in both my tests, even if it did take great effort to detect it from the end of the 8th hour onwards.
Sidi Bel-Abbes’ extremely limited release up to this point means that there isn’t a lot of discussion about it for me to share with you, but I found a few descriptions. There are two comments on the perfume’s Fragrantica page at this time, though only “Meama” has actually tried the scent. He found Sidi Bel-Abbes to have a “very manly, old school cologne” and barbershop vibe, in addition to being a largely linear fragrance, but he seems to have liked it as a whole:
In general all the perfumes of the “Gold” collection are very direct in their reading of the notes, there is not much evolution. The quality is high enough without doubt, do we smell the difference with all the other Lutens? not really. They would have made great additions to the normal collection and we can not help thinking that this price is a profitability operation of little elegance.
Sidi Bel-Abbès is a cold incense whith tobacco, notes of wax, polish. There is something of very manly, old school cologne – old barbershop – but in a super high density, almost mineral. [¶] Very nice.
Fragrantica writer, Serguey Borisov, wrote an article for the site on three of the new Section d’Or releases, and describes Sidi Bel-Abbes as follows:
It alternates typical masculine and feminine notes: sweet tobacco flower and bitter leather, gourmand vanilla and sweat-smelling rough cumin, bright tropical flowers and spicy fougère cologne for men. This contradiction is unusual and frightening at first, but later on it fascinates and captivates. Sidi Bel-Abbes starts much more active and bold in comparison to Fumerie Turque, its apparent ancestor. This relationship will become more apparent after a few hours.
Notes: White Tobacco, Beeswax, Russian leather, Cumin, Coumarin, Vanilla.
Katie Chutzpah has a two-sentence summation for the scent:
Sidi Bel-Abbes encapsulates a forbidden love affair so its make-up of beeswax, tobacco and vanilla gives a hint to the cad in the Foreign Legion to jilted his aristocratic lover before heading to Sidi Bel-Abbes to enlist. (Side Bel-Abbes is the Algerian town where the French Foreign Legion was based).
I enjoyed parts of Sidi Bel-Abbes from the 5th hour onwards, but the elephant in the room in all this is the perfume’s price. A 50 ml bottle costs €570, reportedly £480, and probably $600. Regular readers are familiar with what I call “The Roja Dove Rule”: if a perfume is clearly high-quality, complex, and luxuriously opulent, then whether it’s worth its price becomes a wholly subjective, personal valuation. What is over-priced for one person may well be worth it to another; so long as the baseline requirements are there, then it’s up to the individual.
That said, I personally don’t find Sidi Bel-Abbes has the quality, smoothness, depth, and overall complexity to warrant $600 for 50 ml, a price which is a lot more than a number of Roja Doves for the same size bottle. Since I’m a mere mortal and not part of Section d’Or’s target audience of the super wealthy, what I always ask myself with fragrances like this is: “Would I jokingly contemplate selling a kidney to buy it? Would I wear it if a bottle happened to drop into my lap for free?” The answer to both questions is: No. The reasons why should be apparent from the entire first half of this review but, as always, I must stress that I have a particular sensitivity to certain ingredients, particularly powerful smoky aromachemicals. The vast majority of people either can’t detect synthetics, or find absolutely nothing wrong with them when they do. (And yes, in my opinion, Sidi Bel-Abbes is a lot more synthetic than the marketing hype for the Section d’Or line would have you believe.)
So, my personal issues notwithstanding, I think you might enjoy Sidi Bel-Abbes very much if you love extremely dark, smoky fragrances centered on leather, tobacco, or both. If so, you should definitely give it a sniff when it hits more stores or the American decanting sites. Whether you think it’s worth $600, though, is another matter entirely….