Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle: Genius but not Felonious.


Marlene Dietrich

The Agony and the Ecstasy.” I had heard so much about Tubereuse Criminelle, but the Perfume Shrine’s reference to the Irving Stone classic in the context of sadomasochism and Marlene Dietrich made me sit up just a little bit higher and pay strict attention. Elena Vosnaki, the award-winning editor and expert behind The Perfume Shrine, wrote about “fire and ice” and described T/C as “felonious,” before concluding: “Like Marlen Dietrich’s name according to Jean Cocteau, but in reverse, Tubéreuse Criminelle starts with a whip stroke, ends with a caress. For sadomasochists and people appreciative of The Agony and The Ecstasy. A masterpiece!!” (Emphasis added.) 

Good Lord! My jaw dropped. I had to try it, and I had to try it immediately. Like any self-respecting tuberose lover, I own (and love) Fracas, created in 1948 by Robert Piguet and now, the benchmark for all tuberose scents. But perfumistas of all stripes — regardless of how they feel about classique tuberose fragrances — are also aware that today’s modern masters have sought to take tuberose and flip it upside its head. To transform it from the powerhouse legend that so many adore and that a small portion tremble before in abject horror and fear. Serge Lutens was the very first to do that in 1999 with Tubereuse Criminelle, followed thereafter by Frederic Malle in 2005 with Carnal Flower.

The Perfume Shrine’s review, along with that of numerous others, made me determined to try both modern takes on my beloved Fracas right away. (Plus, the “ice” part sounded bloody good to one suffering the horrors of a Texas summer.)

Marlene Dietrich's legendary legs, once insured by Lloyds of London.

Marlene Dietrich’s legendary legs, once insured by Lloyds of London.

I did my best to overlook the numerous references to “mouth wash,” “gasoline,” “Drano,” and metholated rubber. I focused instead on “sadomasochism” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (a book I’d loved and a movie that isn’t bad either). Or other comments like, “criminally genius,” “subversive” and “transformative” (the latter usually said by those who previously felt ill at the mere thought of tuberose.) But, really, it was the Perfume Shrine’s review. Would you pass up the chance to feel “felonious”or to be like Marlene Dietrich cracking a whip?

While waiting impatiently for my sample bottles to arrive, I read up on Tubereuse Criminelle. Uncle Serge (as he is often affectionately called) worked with his favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and their final product was exclusive to their Palais Royal store in Paris.

The bell jar of Tubereuse Criminelle.

The bell jar of Tubereuse Criminelle.

It was one of the famous “bell jar” fragrances — a reference to the shape of the bottle. As a Palais Royal exclusive, it was also not available for export and was considerably more expensive than the regular, export Lutens line. (In the US, the Lutens website currently offers the bell-jar form for $300 for 75 ml or 2.5 fl. oz in eau de parfum form. However, it also offers the regular 1.7 oz/50 ml rectangular bottle for $140.)SL TC small

Being one of Lutens’ “non-export” Paris exclusives just added to the mystique but, finally, in mid-2011, Lutens agreed to export the scent world-wide. Allegedly, Tubéreuse Criminelle was reformulated to comply with certain export regulations and was weakened in strength. There is no official confirmation of that; perfume houses rarely admit it. So, thus far, it is merely anecdotal references based on people’s experiences with the original Palais Royal salon perfume. But there have been a lot of those anecdotes with regard to several Lutens perfumes that are now available as exports.

I think a 2011 interview with Serge Lutens makes it pretty clear that some Lutens fragrances have definitely been reformulated for one reason or another. In an interview with Fragrantica, Lutens was asked explicitly about whether he had ever reformulated a scent to comply with those bloody IFRA regulations.

Serge Lutens

Serge Lutens

He answered as follows:

Laws are a force from which one cannot escape. They are even applied hypocritically, through the circumventing of them or, as with all the world of perfumery (if it wants to be in compliance with these laws), by replacing the forbidden with other elements… which will themselves be prohibited a few months later. However, I do not like to retrogress: what’s done is done, and it is not certain that a perfumery such as mine can continue in the future. (Emphasis added.)

The Tubereuse Criminelle entry on the Lutens website states simply:

"Les Fleurs du Mal," Charles Baudelaire.

“Les Fleurs du Mal,” Charles Baudelaire.

Baudelaire was right. Let’s give the flowers back to evil.

And I think he and Christopher Sheldrake achieved that to a large extent, via the ingredients. The notes for Tubéreuse Criminelle are:

jasmine, orange blossom, hyacinth, tuberose, nutmeg, clove, styrax (also known as benzoin), musk and vanilla.

But the transformative key to Tubéreuse Criminelle — the thing which made it so revolutionary as a tuberose perfume — is menthyl salicylate which is a natural organic compound found in tuberose. It creates a very medicinal, almost mentholated or camphorous eucalyptus smell that evokes “Vicks Vapor Rub” for some, but minty mouth wash for others. It can also create varying impressions of gasoline/petrol, rubbery or leather.

Tubéreuse Criminelle opens with a burst of sweet jasmine and, yes, eucalyptus and menthol. It is a much sweeter opening than I recall from when I first tried this scent this summer. Perhaps the heat amplified the menthol notes then but, today, all I smell is heady, narcotic, luxurious, sweet jasmine and, then, only in second place, the menthol. There is a muscle rub smell that is not, on me, Vick’s Vapor Rub but an almost sugared, sweetened version of Tiger’s Balm. The faintly medicinal edge is much softer than I had remembered but, at no time, has it ever been that burst of ice that I read about in the Perfume Shrine’s review. The narcotic-like headiness and warmth of the jasmine round out the notes far too much for them to be a blast of chilly ice. It is, as one person on Basenotes noted so aptly, ” “a lively cooling sharpness.”

A faintly rubbery note soon emerges. It’s not burnt rubber, but an almost thick, viscous, rubbery richness that is oddly sweet. Indolic flowers can often have a rubbery element to the narcotic richness at their heart; and this perfume contains two of the most indolic flowers around – jasmine and tuberose. (You can read more about Indoles and Indolic scents at the Glossary.) Yet, the cool freshness of menthol that cuts through the heady fumes of the flowers in a really clever way, reducing any potential cloying, over-ripeness. I am really enjoying the extremely unusual, novel, unique smell.

Perhaps that’s because I don’t smell many of the terrible notes that Tubéreuse Criminelle’s detractors repeat so frequently. Some of the comments from the negative reviews on Basenotes include the following:

  • A fur coat in mothballs, wrapped in plastic. Shag carpet recently steamed with an industrial strength cleaner and still wet. The open-casket funeral of a wealthy great-aunt. Wow.
  • Starts out with a strong note of iodine followed by the sharp rubber scent of brand new steel belted radial tires. […] Smells like I’m in the tire store one minute and then in a hospital testing lab the next.
  • I love tuberose…but not when it’s mixed with Denorex coal tar shampoo. [..] I don’t want someone to catch a whiff of my expensive perfume and assume that I have a severe dandruff problem!!
  •  It smells like hot asphalt, antiseptic, rubbing alcohol, and tuberose.
  • first contact- menthol, toilet bowl cleaner, fake flowers- cannot get my nose far enough away from my wrists.
  • performance art more than perfume.

For the sake of balance, I should point out that Basenotes has 5 negative reviews, 7 neutral ones, and 23 very positive ones. I’m relieved that I smell few of those things that so plague the negative reviewers — or, at least, not to any comparable degree. (And I most definitely do not smell asphalt or grandma’s mothballs!) I do, however, completely understand the comparison to brand new tires. It’s extremely faint on me, but it is there. And I like the smell as a whole. I definitely consider it to be a work of genius, especially intellectual, and I enjoy certain aspects of it a lot. I’m just not sure I would reach for it, let alone frequently.

The genius of Tubéreuse Criminelle is that it has essentially deconstructed the tuberose flower down to its molecular essence, then separated those notes, and put them all together as individual prisms that — somehow — manage to make the whole even more intense than the original flower. Apparently, there is an organic compound called menthyl salicylate in tuberose (as well as some other plants) which is the basis for oil of wintergreen. So, in short, tuberose naturally produced a medicated wintergreen note, albeit a subtle one. Given that tuberose is also considered to have a very rubbery element to its heart, it’s clear that Lutens and Sheldrake have intentionally sought to emphasize the individual components of tuberose.

The perfume is, thus, like a shattered prism where each broken piece is then put back together to create an even richer, but slightly “off”, sum total. A good example of this is the opening where I smell jasmine and a few other notes, but no actual tuberose. None! At least, no tuberose the way it is in scents like Fracas, Michael Kors by Michael Kors, and most other white flower scents. I smell all the separate and individual components of tuberose, but not the flower itself. That comes later.

After the first 30 minutes, the menthol recedes, and the tuberose emerges along with a definite touch of orange blossom. After another hour, Tubéreuse Criminelle is all soft, creamy and (to my nose) heavenly tuberose. There are hints of hyacinth and lingering traces of the jasmine, but any alleged Marlene Dietrich-like black whip has now turned into the gentle caress of white flowers.

The duration of Tubéreuse Criminelle and the shortness of each developmental phase is much worse on me that it seems to be on others. On my skin, that revolutionary, hugely contradictory and very “off” opening of heady narcotic flowers and wintergreen soon fades. I think Uncle Serge simply does not design florals for my perfume-consuming skin chemistry. An hour and a half in, Tubéreuse Criminelle is white flowers with mere touch of what was once much, much more forceful “lively coolness.” I hear varying reports of just how long those opening notes last on people; those who despise the perfume obviously feels it lasts an eternity, while those who love it lament its short death. All I know is that the perfume’s truly metholated opening lasted only about 20-30 minutes on me. The first  full 1 to 1.5 hours on me, it was a mix of faint wintery coolines and heady flowers. Then it became pure white flowers (with the hyacinth becoming much more dominant) and a faint touch of vanilla from the styrax/benzoin.

One type of Styrax tree which creates the resin used in Tubereuse Criminelle.

One type of the styrax tree which creates the resin used in Tubereuse Criminelle.

In terms of sillage or projection, it’s quite impressive at first. Tubéreuse Criminelle only started to fade about 2 hours in, which is a hell of a lot more than what I can say for Serge Lutens’ A La Nuit. I would place T/C  closer to Serge Noire in terms of sillage and longevity on me, than to some of his other perfumes. Tubéreuse Criminelle became close to the skin about 3.5 hours in, which is again impressive for a Lutens, in my experience. And the whole thing lasted about 5.5 to 6 hours on me.

The best way I can really sum up my personal Tubéreuse Criminelle experience is in photos. I expected it to evoke this:

CS for Vogue

Claudia Schiffer for Vogue.

And I expected to respond like this:


Naomi Campbell by Steven Meisel.

Instead, it opened for just a short 20 minutes like this:

Vogue 2005 -AJ

before turning much more into this:


And, by the end, I felt like this:


There is nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, it makes Tubéreuse Criminelle a much more approachable tuberose scent for those who previously feared anything to do with the flower.

I think that I’m absolutely in awe of the genius behind Tubéreuse Criminelle’s almost avant-garde deconstruction of the underlying flower and of its prismatic construction. Intellectually, the theory behind this makes me adore it. In real life, and for actual wearing… not so much. Beyond the sheer brilliance of its creation, it’s intriguing, yes, and there is something about that opening which makes it stay in at the back of your mind. But, ultimately and in its final moments, it’s really not all that interesting. If I owned a bottle, I’d wear it — on occasion. I simply can’t see myself reaching for it like a drug addict in need of his one pure solace.

I see nothing about fire and ice, I see no dominatrixes (not even in those first 20 minutes), and I certainly don’t see Marlene Dietrich with a whip. (Oddly, however, I actually could see her wearing this on occasion, but it wouldn’t be the first scent that came to mind when thinking about that legendary icon.) In some ways, I feel almost offended by the comparison to Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire is one of my favorite poets and he would scoff at the Lutens’ website line of “let’s give the flowers back to evil” after smelling Tubéreuse Criminelle. There is nothing evil about the perfume — not the way it is on my skin. Metholated white flowers don’t arise to the level of almost malevolently decaying inner rot; and there is too much sweetness, warmth and light with the jasmine, hyacinth and the other notes. But Tubéreuse Criminelle is revolutionary. And it is also complete genius.

This review is for my brave friend, Teri, who is always an explorer of the senses and who foolhardily buys $300 Bell Jars without even a review!

Perfume: Unisex. Men definitely do wear this.
Cost: $140 for 1.7 fl oz/50 ml or $300 for 2.5 fl oz/75 ml in the famous bell-jar shape. Both available on the Serge Lutens website. In general, Serge Lutens is also available at fine retailers like Barney’s, Lucky Scent and a few other places. I’ve even seen it sold on Amazon. Sample vials to test it out can be bought at Surrender to Chance, Lucky Scent, and The Perfumed Court.

43 thoughts on “Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle: Genius but not Felonious.

      • Oh by all means I want to try it. I want to smell EVERYTHING! If I can test Secretion Magnifiques and live to tell the tale, then I can smell them all!

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      • Thank you, Jean. I’m glad the photos cracked you up. *grin* The perfume doesn’t really smell like gasoline. Some find that but it’s mostly just a mentholated camphor take on a floral. It’s an interesting scent and utterly brilliant, but I personally like my florals a little less intellectual, complicated and artistically unusual. LOL.

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  6. Wow this was such a brilliant review, I wish I could go this further as you did with my reviews. Good job, really i’m very impressed! Just in case you’d like to read my weaker one you can find it at
    Keep up the good work! And by the way the last picture was just right haha

    • Hi Scentedlife, so good of you to stop by. And thank you for your kind words. 🙂 I read your review and the line — “not what your grandma would wear for sure, unless your grandma is Carmen Dell’Orefice.” — made me laugh so much. Nice job on the lovely mood board, by the way! You seem to share my deep admiration and love for “Uncle Serge,” so I hope you will feel free to stop by more often. We have a little unofficial Serge Lutens fan club here. 😀

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  9. Have I really never commented on this before?! Anyway, I’m trying it now and I sort of love it! I agree it’s not particularly criminal, but the icy mentholated tuberose *does* help me get fire and ice. In sum, I’m sort of taken by the scent in a way that surprised me!

    • Oh, how nice! It’s rare to see someone talk positively about Tubereuse Criminelle on the blog, so I’m glad you had a positive experience and that you enjoyed that icy, mentholated tuberose. Was it at all rubbery or petrol-like on you?

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  14. Just received a gift of this and it was like having an electric shock. It is shocking, initially, in every sense of the word and I agree, it is absolutely genius. I’d go so far as to say it’s the first purely intellectual scent I’ve experienced. It’s also the reason why I can’t see myself wearing it in any realistic sense. I can’t get past the wintergreen aspect and it makes me nauseous The dry down is lovely but the journey is far too rocky to get there and besides, I’m really not sure I actually want to smell like this. It’s like the masterpiece, ”The Seventh Seal ”, it’s one of my favorite paintings, it’s magnificent and haunting but I couldn’t be around it on a regular basis!

    Aside, I’m a long-time reader and admirer of your blog Kafkaesque and this is my first time contributing. You are an oasis of absolute joy I have to say. Never stop writing.

    • HA at the “electric shock.” I had to smile. It is quite an opening, isn’t it? I looked up The Seventh Seal, as it rang a bell, but I couldn’t conjure up the image. And, you know, I can completely see why Tubereuse Criminelle may have that same overwhelming, intense feel. I think it is one of the Lutens masterpieces that — for many, MANY people — is more like actual Art (with a capital A), and less than something really wearable. Those who love it, do so passionately, but it isn’t for everyone. 🙂

      BTW, on a side note, I’m so glad that you’ve come out of lurkerdom! Perfume is always more fun when shared, so I really hope you’ll feel free to pop by again from time to time! And thank you very much for your kind words on the blog as a whole. I rather needed that today, of all days, and it motivated me in a way that you may not have expected. So, thank you. 🙂

  15. As usual, I come in late.

    Dear Kafkaesque, I completely agree with Calraigh: please don’t stop blogging, your way of writing is a blessing.

    I just wanted to say I love Tubéreuse Criminelle. Two years ago I bought six tuberose bulbs and three
    of them luckily did bloom. Never have I smelled a perfume coming this close to the actual scent, which
    also in real life is not for the faint of heart.

    While I keep hoping for the newly formed bulbs to bloom again and for the three old ones to do so at least once I have the Lutens version as a consolation.

    For some time I have been pondering on buying a Lutens bell bottle. As I don’t know either Rose de Nuit nor Bois Oriental, which sound the most intriguing to me, I asked Lutens customer service for samples.

    You can actually buy the whole range as a wax sample booklet from Palais Royal. So I would advise anyone interested in those samples not to buy them at exaggerated prices on e-bay, by the way.

    De Profundis as well as La Myrrhe have also appealed very much to me, the first one because of what you, dear Kafkaesque, wrote about it, and the second one due to a review on Bois de Jasmin.

    So when it is quite difficult to come by samples, I am always glad to have a place to turn to and be
    able to read something about the perfumes in question.

    Sometimes I’m bold enough for blind buys, but with Lutens this would be a bit daring, as the scents created under his aegis cover a wide range, e. g. from Bornéo 1834 (which I love as well) to the Tubéreuse.

    Best regards


    • Thank you for the very kind words, Petra, and for the encouragement. With regard to the wax samples, they are definitely a good place to start in exploring the line, though I’ve heard some mixed things about how similar or not the wax version is to the perfume/liquid version. But they’re definitely a way to get some approximate idea! So, it seems you already have your wax set, right? Based on those samples, what have you loved the most thus far?

      It’s interesting that you mention Bois Oriental. When I went to the Mothership (lol), I had expected to like Bois Oriental the most out of the Bois series. I was really surprised to find out that was not the case, and Bois et Fruits appealed to me more. I’m not even a fruity fragrance lover! So, yes, please try the samples before you venture blindly into bell jar territory! lol. As you say, blind buying is a huge risk with the Lutens brand in general.

      As for Tubereuse Criminelle, I absolutely love tuberose in nature and it is my favorite flower of all. I’m so glad the perfume brings you some of the beauty that you experience with your bulbs. 🙂

  16. Hello Kafkaesque, thank you very much for your reply.

    I am still waiting for my wax sample set and I will compare those scents with some of the liquid samples I already own, hoping that this will give me some idea.

    Actually, I was quite tempted by Bois et Fruits as well, after having read your review as well as other
    enthusiastic ones. But as to me sometimes Bois de Violette and also Feminité du Bois are a bit too sweet, I am quite afraid Bois et Fruits will even be more so.

    By the way, I am rather an aldehydics (all the classic ones from No. 5, Arpège, Liu to Sortilège etc. :)) and orientals fan, so I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see.

    Best regards


  17. On Friday I finally received my wax samples. Obviously, there had been some problems with my address, albeit not with my credit card data…

    In my opinion those are fine samples; when trying “La Myrrhe” I even perceived the No 5-like head notes mentioned by so many reviewers. As for the scent itself: I’ll never like it. This one goes from overly soapy to terribly sweet without any hint of the kind of myrrhe I know, which has an explicitly bitter note.

    “Rose de Nuit” is lovely to me. I would say this is the missing link between “Rose Barbare” by Guerlain and “L’Arte di Gucci”, which I both own. So there’s no immediate need for the Lutens scent.

    As usual, the anticipated perfumes were not the ones to crave for. I found myself liking “Boxeuses” and “Une Voix Noire” most, which somehow surprises me, as I am neither a big chypre cuir nor floral lover.

    But, also as usual, I am completely undecided, as “Bornéo 1834” or “El Attarine” also appeal to me…

    Best regards


    • I’m glad the sample set has helped decide which Lutens may work for you and which may not. I like both Boxeuses and Une Voix Noire quite a bit, though they didn’t work for me completely on a personal level. Fourreau Noir is one of my favorites from the line, along with De Profundis, Cuir Mauresque, Fille en Aiguilles, and Chergui. I also own Bois et Fruits, despite not really being into fruited fragrances. La Myrrhe was very difficult for me, primarily due to the opening which was very much soapy excess on my skin as well. It’s certainly not an easy one, so I can understand your struggle with that one.

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  23. It’s interesting that Tuberose contains menthyl. I happened to have bought a bottle of pure tuberose extract/oil from a vegan supermarket. I found it again recently and noticed it has a crisp, sweet, crystalline chilliness which I find quite fascinating for a flower which naturally evokes the idea of mild, moist climates. I’m curious to try Tubereuse Criminelle as, though I love jasmine, tuberoses seem to agree better with my skin type (I tend to make Jasmine smell like sugar covered flowers!).

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  27. I just LOVE all of your reviews — edifying for the perfume novice that I am! I just acquired this scent via PoshMark from someone who clearly wasn’t in love with it, and I’m stunned. My favorite Serge Lutens’s fragrances up to now have been very different: Bornéo 1834 and Santal Majuscule. This perfume makes me feel more feminine and daring. When I first put it on, I was especially struck by a very dear fragrance from my childhood: that of fresh ripe pineapple guava (feijoa) still on its tree. It’s a resinous green smell that hits before the floral. I could see how someone who hasn’t ever tasted this wonderful fruit could envision terrible flavors in its stead…

    • Welcome to the blog, Grey Lagh, and thank you for the kind words on the reviews. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve found a great new love in Tubereuse Criminelle, and that it hits such an emotional note with you both in terms of the present day and in terms of childhood memories. 🙂 That’s wonderful!

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