L’Orpheline is a brand new release from the venerated house of Serge Lutens, a scent that seeks to symbolically explore the line between the cool, silvered, smoky blackness of the moon, and the richer, spicier ambered warmth of the earth. To that end, “High Mass” Avignon church incense and aldehydes transform into creamy Cashmere woods with almost a Mysore sandalwood-like veneer from spices, black incense, and amber. It is a fragrance that I have very mixed feelings about, but one which I think will be incredibly appealing to a certain segment of the perfume-wearing world.
L’Orpheline was created by Serge Lutens in conjunction with his usual collaborator, Christopher Sheldrake. It was just released in Europe in June, and will come to America on September 1st. [Update 8/8/2014: the perfume has already hit a few U.S. retailers early, and is now available in limited fashion.] L’Orpheline (whose name translates to a female orphan) is an eau de parfum, but it is one of the handful of black-labeled Haute Concentration eau de parfums, like Fille en Aiguilles and Santal Majuscule.
On the European Serge Lutens website, L’Orpheline is described in wholly poetic, almost mythological terms:
Fragile but whole.
Its name hints at a break but before the fissures show, its first two syllable conjure Orpheus, a poet who could charm even stones.
Serge Lutens has released a video which ostensibly purports to describe the scent in much greater detail, but it is rather surrealistic in imagery and Le Maitre (or Master) is even more esoteric than usual. I mean, really, really abstractly oblique. Frankly, I didn’t understand most of it at first, though I could not stop thinking of Freud. The video is subtitled in English, and is rather bewildering at times. Yet, in the end, I think some of the comments actually turn out to be a bit revealing in symbolic terms, and show what Serge Lutens sought to do with this fragrance, its development, its teetering between black and white worlds, and the sometimes contrasting juxtaposition of its notes.
In essence, the video is about the orphan within us — an inner child who always remains “caught between the moon and the earth,” and “the fantasy of its black and white” — a child who navigates the tightrope between the two worlds, losing her footing, and falls. It’s extremely melancholic, even for Serge Lutens, and it reinforces my perpetual wish to hug him. (Yes, I am one of those crazed, die-hard, Uncle Serge admirers, even though I rarely understand everything that he is saying.)
As I’ve written in the past in my profile of Serge Lutens (Part I and Part II), many of his fragrances are an attempt to celebrate his beloved mother, but also to work through his extremely painful childhood where he was abandoned at a very young age during WWII, has memories of falling bombs creating a sense of death, was rejected by his father’s family as a “bastard,” and was generally an “orphan” of sorts himself. The connection between his past, the description of this particular perfume, and its name is hard to miss, even if the word “orphan” is presented in the French feminine form. The reference to Orpheus is significant, too, as the Greek character is usually known for his attempts to bring back his beloved from the Underworld, just as Serge Lutens seeks to honour, evoke, and symbolically bring back his mother through his creations. Moreover, Orpheus died at the hands of those who could not hear (or appreciate) his beautiful creations, which is something that I suspect Mr. Lutens feels himself. As I wrote in the profile, it seems my beloved “Oncle Serge” has a very fractured sense of self and deep wounds, but who wouldn’t with his background?
Ultimately, however, Serge Lutens tells us very little of a specific nature about the perfume, and certainly nothing about its actual notes. As usual, it’s a guessing game. The Perfume Shrine believes that the notes in L’Orpheline include:
top notes of aldehydes, with a heart and base composed of woods (cedar prominently), a fougere accord, coumarin, “clouds of ambergris”, patchouli, incense and Cashmeran (“blonde woods”).
My personal guess would be a little different, as L’Orpheline is nothing like a fougère on my skin with the typical elements commonly used in such fragrances today, like lavender, oakmoss, herbaceous elements, or geranium. There is only the coumarin which is not sufficient, in and of itself, to really constitute a “fougère,” in my opinion. Of course, skin chemistry can either amplify or muffle certain notes, and Serge Lutens always keeps his perfume pyramid secret, so who really knows? Nonetheless, the notes that appear on my skin are:
Olibanum frankincense, myrrh incense, aldehydes, Cashmeran (beige woods), patchouli, cistus labdanum amber, (aromachemical) woods, and coumarin.
L’Orpheline opens on my skin with a mix of cool, white myrrh incense and frankincense, followed quickly by slightly soapy, fatty aldehydes and a hint of ambered sweetness. The aldehydes are light and far from the extreme soapiness of some fragrances with the element, while the amber has a nuance of caramel but is also rather abstract, more like a generalized sweetness and warmth. The whole thing lies on a thin layer — almost like a sliver — of very creamy, beige woods. I’ve often noticed that my skin gives Cashmeran a Shea butter nuance, like that in some hand creams containing Cashmere or Shea, and the same thing appears here as well. I’m not saying that the white woods smell like butter, but they have that same sort of Shea creaminess to them.
What was interesting to me was how the prominence of the various notes differed according to the amount of fragrance that I applied. In all cases, L’Orpheline opens as an incense dominated fragrance, to the point that I could smell incense (and only incense) even through the small wrapping which my vial came in. However, the nature of that incense bouquet varied depending on quantity. When I applied a lesser amount (and we will get to the specifics of that shortly), L’Orpheline was quite a cool, silvery-white fragrance in feel, with a “High Church” or Catholic Mass aroma like such famous incense fragrances as Avignon or Heeley‘s Cardinal. L’Orpheline lacks the bone dryness of the former, and the heavy soapiness of the latter, not to mention the extreme dustiness of both scents, but there is definitely a general kinship in the perfume’s overall vibe. L’Orpheline is definitely not an incense fragrance in the Middle Eastern or Amouage vein, but something much more austere, cool, white, and meditative. In short, Catholic or Orthodox incense.
On the other hand, when I applied a greater quantity of the scent, L’Orpheline was slightly warmer and sweeter. It is a fractional thing and question of degrees, as the perfume still had the slight touch of soapy aldehydes and still radiated an austere white, church incense, but there was a definite ambered glow lurking in the background. The soapy aldehydes were even less prominent, and the incense felt more tinged by creaminess than by fustiness or ancient, dank, church-y tonalities. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s pretend there is a scale of 1 to 10 where Avignon is a solid 10 in terms of heavily dusty, cold, High Church scents, while Cardinal would be a 9 and Profumum Roma‘s Olibanum would rank as an 8. (If it were not for Olibanum’s strong citrus note, I would put it at an 8.5.) L’Orpheline would come in at a 6.5 or 6 on the scale when I apply a smaller quantity, and a 6 or 5.5 when I apply more of it. So, we’re a long way from Avignon, but that is the sort of incense that dominates L’Orpheline.
Regardless of quantity, an element that is a noticeable part of L’Orpheline in both instances is the woody note. It’s an aromachemical, but it is not a medicinal one, is far from rubbing alcohol, doesn’t smell particularly of cedar, and has rather a slightly ambered undertone to it. That said, I’m not a huge fan of its artificial dryness or the noticeable whiff of chemical pepperiness that it provides, but since neither undertone is a massive part of L’Orpheline (especially after the first hour), and since I doubt most people would be able to detect anything beyond slightly peppered “woodiness,” let’s move on.
L’Orpheline begins to shift quite rapidly. Within minutes, the aldehydes move to the edges where they turn into a mere speck 20 minutes into the perfume’s evolution. The incense becomes stronger and cooler, the amber retreats, and the tiniest hint of patchouli appears to take its place. There is also a wholly abstract spiciness that pops up its head, almost like a wisp of cloves, but the note is really too vague, muffled, and subdued on my skin to really specify. At the same time, L’Orpheline starts to slowly grow creamier as a whole, as the Cashmeran Shea woods begin to surge to the forefront.
Roughly 10 minutes in, L’Orpheline is primarily a mix of peppered aroma-chemical woodiness and creamy Shea woods under a tidal wave of High Church myrrh incense that is just barely dappled by the whiteness of aldehydes. The visuals are all of white myrrh turned grey with a light dose of black frankincense, mixed with beige woods, and only subtle dabs of brown patchouli and cloves. Yet, despite all my references to the “High Church” aspects, L’Orpheline never actually makes me feel as though I’ve gone to Mass or am in an ancient, musty Russian Orthodox church. There is a subtle serenity to the scent, a meditative quality that evokes Kyoto and Japanese rituals more than anything else, perhaps due to the fragrance’s strong woodiness.
With every passing moment, the layer of creaminess in L’Orpheline grows stronger. There is a strange dichotomy between the austere, oddly cold incense with the dry, woody aromachemical juxtaposed next to the creamy butteriness of the woods and the intangible warmth of the patchouli and abstract spices. I now suddenly understand Serge Lutens’ reference in the video to the fragile orphan teetering between the moon (a silvery-black-white cold place) and the earth (which can be symbolized by the earthiness of the patchouli and the warmth of that subtle streak of amber in the base).
It’s very clever, but I’m not hugely blown over by the opening bouquet. My initial reaction to the tidal wave of incense was very enthusiastic, before being doused with the cold shower of the peppered, woody aromachemical and that touch of soapiness. Yet, I really like the buttery undertones to the Cashmeran, white woods. On the other hand, I’m far from keen on the perfume’s almost translucent body, thinness, and subdued nature. I suspect that it is supposed to parallel or symbolise the “fragility” of the orphan as she teeters on a tightrope in the blackness of night with the silveriness of the moon (the myrrh), but I’m not really into fragile perfumes.
In fact, from the very opening moments, L’Orpheline is an incredibly light, subtle scent — to the point of being problematic. I’ve worn the fragrance twice now, and it starts as an enormously “fragile” fragrance with extremely weak sillage and body. The first time that I tried L’Orpheline, the lightness was such that, after my standard 2 big smears of scent, I quickly had to add a third, even larger one, just to ensure that I could catch all the perfume’s nuances. In total, the first time that I tested the fragrance, I applied a little more than 1/3rd of a 1 ml vial. With that amount, L’Orpheline opened with perhaps 2 inches of sillage, at best, and barely hovered above the skin by the end of the first hour! It became a true, total skin scent on me roughly an hour and 45 minutes into the perfume’s development. By the same token, the tiny amount I applied on my chest had zero sillage wafting up at me after a mere 10 minutes. It’s been a long, long time since I tried a Serge Lutens fragrance that was so incredibly weak.
The fact that L’Orpheline is labelled as an “Haute Concentration” eau de parfum simply boggles my mind. I’ve tried eau de toilettes with more body, weight, or initial sillage. So, I tested L’Orpheline a second time and applied more, amounting to 2/3rd of a ml, or the equivalent of about 4 small sprays from an actual bottle. The sillage was still as weak, though it now took 3 hours for L’Orpheline to turn into a skin scent on me. Fille en Aiguilles, one of L’Orpheline’s siblings in the “Haute Concentration” line, is about 10 times stronger than this scent — and I know a number of people for whom Fille en Aiguilles is a light scent which quickly vanishes on their skin. In short, L’Orpheline goes beyond mere softness and lightness, even from the very first instance.
It’s a shame, because I have to say that L’Orpheline’s second, main phase is lovely. The very first, tiny intimations of what is to come begin roughly 20 minutes into L’Orpheline’s development when the creamy, Shea woods starts to compete with the incense for center stage. At the same time, there is a hint of spicy patchouli, while the aldehydes have completely vanished, and the cedar is not particularly noticeable in a clearly delineated, individual way. There are absolutely no key fougère notes on my skin, whether lavender, oakmoss, herbaceousness, or geranium, though I do think the Cashmeran woods are helped by the subtle creaminess that coumarin can sometimes demonstrate.
Roughly 50 minutes in, L’Orpheline is primarily woody, smoky, incense’d creaminess with a touch of abstract spiciness, all nestled within a subtle amber that feels like a wisp of nebulous warmth. Both Avignon and Cardinal contain cistus labdanum, but the golden softness is significantly more noticeable in L’Orpheline. The key, though, is those Shea Cashmeran woods whose creaminess is slowly overtaking everything.
Nothing about L’Orpheline is revolutionary, edgy, unique, or original. It is certainly worlds apart from the traditional Lutens signature of dark, resinous woods with plummy stewed fruits, or his complicated deconstructionism in his more ground-breaking Bell Jar creations which sometimes approximate art more than anything else. L’Orpheline doesn’t even have the many, endless morphing twists for which Serge Lutens has become famous. Instead, it is a fragile, delicate, intimate little thing with strong echoes to other scents. I wouldn’t call it commercial, per se, but it doesn’t feel distinctive.
What it does feel like at this point, however, is something that is very elegant, as well as very wearable, comfortable, and serene. L’Orpheline feels like one of those uncomplicated scents that you’d turn to after an absolutely hellish day for a quiet evening at home. There is an oddly meditative, Zen quality to it at the end of the first hour and the start of the second, as well as a cozy softness. It feels like the perfume equivalent of soft, very thin cashmere pyjamas that you’d crawl into after a stressful day, or a pashmina throw that you’d curl under as you seek some peace and quiet.
And the perfume just gets better. By the end of the second hour, L’Orpheline becomes a seamless blend of spicy, creamy, smoky woods with incense and ambered warmth. It strongly reminds me of a softer, lighter, slightly diluted sandalwood and, yes, I’m talking about Mysore sandalwood! To be clear, it’s a weakened, diluted, thinner bodied impression of Mysore sandalwood, with a substantially greater amount of smokiness than the wood naturally manifests and with much less of its red-gold spiciness. But, somehow, through some alchemy in the combination of notes, L’Orpheline has taken on the various attributes of Mysore sandalwood on my skin.
In fact, it is a significantly more authentic “Mysore” recreation than that in many ostensibly “sandalwood” fragrances that I’ve tried, including a number from Uncle Serge himself. The composite bouquet in L’Orpheline smells more like Mysore than the lackluster beige woods in Lutens’ rosy Santal Majuscule. It is also a much more enjoyable sandalwood than that in Lutens’ excessively foody Santal de Mysore. The sum total effect of L’Orpheline’s spices, patchouli, myrrh, frankincense, and creamy Shea woods has resulted in something that, on my skin at least, has a much more genuine Mysore vibe than the ghastly, green, very synthetic “sandalwood” in Kilian‘s new, massively overpriced Sacred Wood, and is also much more authentic than the watery cucumber, beige woods in Le Labo‘s Santal 33. I won’t even begin to talk about Profumum‘s wholly synthetic, chemical Santalum, or the snickerdoodle cookies of Frederic Malle‘s Dries Van Noten. L’Orpheline’s spicy, smoky woods are also more appealing to me than either Lorenzo Villaresi‘s decent Sandalo or Amouage‘s Sandal Attar with its greenish, buttermilk aroma. And I’ve noticed that the more L’Orpheline I applied, the more the perfume begins to approximate the Mysore vibe. Again, this is what occurs on me, but I very much hope that the same wonderful alchemy occurs with other people’s skin chemistry.
L’Orpheline doesn’t change in any substantial way at all from this point until the very end. In its final hour, the creaminess retreats to the sidelines, and the perfume becomes drier. What’s left is a wispy sliver of woodiness with the lightest hints of incense and abstract spiciness. There is little creaminess or Cashmeran, not a significant amount of ambered warmth, and the aromachemical nuance returns, though it is subtle. The overall effect isn’t bad, but it isn’t as enjoyable as the majority of L’Orpheline’s drydown phase with its warm, spicy, woody, smoky creaminess.
If only I could detect it better in a way that didn’t require me to practically take a bath in the perfume. To quickly repeat, at the lower dosage of roughly 1/3rd of a ml or 2 good sprays from a bottle (which is about one spray more than some people generally use), L’Orpheline hovers weakly and just barely above the skin at the end of 60 minutes, and becomes a skin scent on me a little after 90 minutes. All in all, it only lasted a total of 6.25 hours, and I had to put my nose actually on my arm and inhale hard to detect the nuances of the scent for much of the time.
When I used 2/3rds of a vial (or roughly 4 sprays from an actual bottle), L’Orpheline was still very weak from the start, became a skin scent on me at the start of the 3rd hour, but the longevity was better at 8.75 hours. For me, the speed with which L’Orpheline becomes a skin scent is a serious problem, as well as its incredibly translucent feel for the first few hours. The perfume may deepen and turn richer when the “Mysore” tonalities start to kick in, but at that point, I’m practically snuffling at my arm like a rabid dog trying to unearth truffles. It’s not my thing.
I think there is a very specific market for a scent like L’Orpheline, and those people will absolutely adore the fragrance. I want to tell you a story about my neighbor, whom I shanghai’ed into smelling L’Orpheline about 2 hours into my second testing when I had applied the very large amount. I specifically sought her help to get a sense of how the fragrance would come across to someone who almost never wears perfume and who cannot stand anything strong. So, I asked her sniff my arm, inquiring only if she thought the scent was too light, too heavy, too much, or very appealing. She sniffed, said, “Oh, is that sandalwood? I would wear that!!” Now, keep in mind that this is a lady who doesn’t actually like fragrance very much, who wears it maybe once every one or two years, whose husband seems to despise it, and whose concept of a good perfume is the most imperceptible, minimalistic thing around. She really liked L’Orpheline. In contrast, however, my post-lady who actually wears perfume took a sniff of my arm at around the same point in time and said, “I can’t really smell anything. Is it something smoky? I don’t know, it’s barely there.”
There are a few reviews already out for L’Orpheline. Persolaise experienced an opening of “sparkling” winter notes with incense, followed by fougère and woody-leather tonalities, but what he enjoyed most was the creaminess of the drydown which he called “comfort itself” with its “downy,” “soothing” serenity. His evocative, lovely review reads, in part, as follows:
The scent begins […with] a tiny puff of sparkling, winter-forest notes – juniper berries? rosemary? aldehydes? – followed by a suggestion of the chemically sterile, mineralic incense redolent of the heart of the brand’s Eaux series.
The story is then taken up by the middle section, with florals recounting one strand and fougère-inspired, woody leathers the other. The former is represented by geranium – subtle, verdant and rose-like – as well as a faint, clove-y blanket of carnation. The latter appears in the guise of a pristine patchouli and a whisper of suede, as confident as moonlight [….]
And the conclusion? I’d say it is comfort itself. An exhalation of contentment. In keeping with the relative serenity of everything that has come before, the drydown barely raises its voice above the level of a hushed – albeit fervent – declaration. It sinks into a downy pliability, a dusty, velvety powderiness, as reassuring and as elusive as reminiscence [….] Just when the wearer lets down their guard, a suspicion of something burning makes its presence known in the background (the dying embers of yesteryear?) but it vanishes the moment it appears. Fleecy, soothing and deeply compelling, this final stage of the scent is, in Lutens’ own words, “the wake of my life, that which remains when all has disappeared.”
One of the most tender releases we’ve seen from the brand for quite some time, L’Orpheline wears its wounded heart on its sleeve and pleads for affection, even as it conceals its face behind an ivory shroud. Be kind to it… and I daresay your devotion will be richly rewarded.
Our personal experiences may differ in terms of the opening, fougère, geranium, and floral aspects, but I agree with him that the incense has a “sterile” (or austere) feel to the start, though I think the “chemical” aspect comes from the woody synthetic instead. I definitely share his views on the comforting serenity of the creamy drydown stage. Most of all, though, I understand what he means when he says that there is a certain tenderness to L’Orpheline. I saw it as fragility, especially at the beginning, but “tender” might apply to the overall development or transformation of the scent as well.
For The Perfume Shrine, L’Orpheline was a “cool and quiet,” “vaporous” fragrance largely centered on peppery incense, and bearing a “certain poignancy.” The main part of the review reads:
For this coolish and quiet fragrance (sequentially warmish, like Gris Clair) named L’Orpheline, Lutens and his sidekick perfumer Chris Sheldrake focus on incense notes, not as cold and soapy as in L’Eau Froide, neither as spicy warm and shady as in Serge Noire, but somewhere in between; entre chien et loup, between daylight and darkness. Frankincense, the impression of bittersweet myrrh and peppery (elemi?) rather than clove-y carnation notes seem to rise, a cross between spirituality and carnality? […]
Yet the end result in L’Orpheline is apart; neither a true Moroccan oriental like hardcore Serge fans have built an online cult out of, nor a classically French perfume for the salon, but a mysterious, vaporous emanation “between the storm and clear skies” […] The peppery accent on the incense reminds me of the treatment of carnations in Oeillet Bengale (one of the best releases of the year so far) while the musky underlay is soft, subtle, meditative and not entirely without a certain poignancy.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about L’Orpheline. The cold opening isn’t my cup of tea, but the rest of it is elegant. The heavily incensed, sandalwood-like creaminess at the middle to end stages is the epitome of loveliness, serenity, and meditative comfort. That said, I wouldn’t spend $150, €99, or £88 for 50 ml of a translucent, fragile scent (“vaporous” in another blogger’s words) with below average sillage and with longevity that is barely moderate unless I apply a vast amount. The very reason why the “Haute Concentration” line is priced $20 higher than the rest of the regular export line is because you’re supposedly getting greater richness, body, and strength. That is far from the case here, in my opinion. L’Orpheline is “Haute Concentration” in the way that a chihuahua is a Great Dane. It’s simply not.
Despite all that, I encourage anyone who is a fan of intimate, hushed fragrances centered around incense or smoky woods to give L’Orpheline a sniff. If you’re one of the many who have mourned the loss of true Mysore sandalwood scents, and if you don’t mind something with great fragility, then you definitely should look for a sample. Hopefully, you will experience the same spiced, smoky, creamy woods that I did. It’s lovely, and almost Zen in its serenity.