Prometheus rising, bringing fire to man, and The Philosopher’s Stone, transforming metals to gold and offering the chance at immortality — those are two of the great myths of history, now embodied in fragrances centered on dark earth notes with incense. How could I possibly resist? If there is anything I love more than perfume, it’s history, so I was instantly intrigued when I came across Lapis Philosophorum and Prométhée (hereinafter just “Promethee”).
They are two fragrances from Olivier Durbano, a Parisian jeweller who specializes in expensive creations using semi-precious stones. Apparently, from what I’ve read, his jewellery is a big hit with the French “glitterati,” as one person put it. Yet, he also has a perfume line, roughly 10 fragrances in total, most of them inspired by a different semi-precious stone. His latest two, however, are drawn from mythology, but all of them are his own creation and made without the assistance of a perfume “nose.” I’ll look at each one in turn.
Promethee is an eau de parfum released in 2014, and classified by Fragrantica as an Oriental Fougère. On his website, Monsieur Durbano has a detailed, mythological narrative for the fragrance which read, in part, as follows:
Following on from “Lapis Philosophorum”, inspired by the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone, Olivier Durbano has delved deep into Greek mythology for this tenth fragrance, marking ten years of olfactory creation devoted to the world of stones and spirituality in which “Prométhée” is the guide…
Prométhée, Prometheus in Ancient Greek, “He who thinks ahead, and tells the future” was a Titan who, with the help of Athena, is reputed to have created Man out of mud transformed into rocks, and also for stealing the “divine knowledge”, the sacred fire of Olympus, which he hid in a fennel stalk to give it to mankind.
Olfactory family: woody, aniseed, amber
Head notes: fennel, pink pepper, nutmeg, myrtle, olibanum [frankincense], cistus [labdanum]
Heart notes: narcissus, Caucasian lily, lavender absolute, fenugreek, Russian sage, storax [styrax]
Base notes: cedarwood, vetiver, myrrh, labdanum, ambergris, musk
Promethee opens on my skin with delicate wisps of refreshing myrtle, dry narcissus, sweet white lilies, and fresh lavender. The mix is quickly overtaken by herbs, spices, pepper, and amber that, for a brief moment, bears a caramel-like nuance. The herbal accord is the most powerful, though, and it is heavily dominated by fenugreek, a spicy plant whose leaves smell like a very foodie, buttery combination of dill, tarragon, and celery. Here, all its facets are on display, including a light, brief touch of celery. A few minutes later, actual fennel arrives on the scene, along with dry sage, dark pepper, and vetiver.
Together, they create the central theme of Promethee on my skin: a dark, vaguely truffle-like humus of green plants, both herbal and fresh, infused with strong earthiness. (Humus is a mix of organic soil matter, like the detritus from the forest floor.) As the earth notes dance on center stage, both the aromatic and delicate floral elements retreat into the shadows, though the narcissus gives off whiffs of dry hay for a few minutes longer. Actually, something about the interplay of floralcy, earthiness, and herbs reminds me of tagetes or marigolds more than any other flower.
The entire bouquet is woven together by strands of incense that soon turn into thick chords, accentuated further by styrax. For all too short a period of time, perhaps 10 minutes in all, the incense competes with the humus composite for supremacy, but it is soon subsumed within the herbal greenness. For an even shorter period, aromatic woods and balsamic resins pop up on the sidelines, only to be swallowed up by the herbaceous, humus earthiness as well.
And that is really one of my big problems with Promethee: all the interesting nuances with their originality and darkness either blur quickly or vanish entirely on my skin. There are scents with seamless composition, and then there are scents that are merely an amorphous haze where very little is evident for long because everything becomes subsumed into a generalized cloud. Promethee falls into the latter category all too soon. Roughly 20 minutes into its evolution, it’s a blend of faceless, hard to identify herbal, green, and earthy notes atop a vaguely golden base. The interesting sage, the uncommon fenugreek, the refreshing myrtle, the aromatic lavender, the sweet beauty of lilies, or the lovely darkness incense — they have little to no definition, no clearly delineated aroma separating them from the morass.
The only thing that stands out is the vetiver which surges to the forefront to overshadow everything else at the end of the first hour and the start of the second. While there are the first glimmers of something synthetic and medicinal floating about now as well, it is the vetiver that is truly distinct. The way it interacts with the earthy humus composite reminds me strongly of Olivier & Co.‘s Vetiverus, an unusually dank, spicy, woody, almost leathered treatment of vetiver with just the tiniest suggestions of sweetness and amber lurking underneath. I’m not generally a vetiver person but I like Vetiverus, though its singular intensity and flat-line linearity always end up exhausting me after a few hours.
Olivier Durbano’s Promethee smells very similar to Vetiverus for about two hours, from the middle of the 2nd hour to the end of the 4th, only Promethee is thinner, sheerer and softer, both in body and projection. Like Vetiverus, Promethee turns warmer, softer, and smoother, as the amber seeps up from the base to coat the earthy, herbal, and green notes with a bronzed glow. On occasion, the scent feels vaguely spicy, vaguely woody, vaguely smoky, but the elements are completely muddled in feel and shapeless. Unlike Vetiverus, there are no traces of floralcy, no leatheriness underlying the mix, and no fruitiness, but there is a definite undercurrent of synthetics in Promethee that becomes clearer at the start of the 3rd hour.
By the time the 5th hour rolls around, Promethee is merely a clean vetiver with quite a bit of white musk and a touch of soapiness. The earthy humus and herbaceousness have largely faded to a shadow of their former selves, while the amber feels weak and wholly amorphous. However, the cedar or, rather, a general woodiness is finally more pronounced, even if it remains on the sidelines. From afar, Promethee’s primary scent is basic vetiver with cleanness. As a whole, the perfume has quite a synthetic vibe to it, and I’m afraid it gave me a bit of a headache if I smelled it for too long up close.
Nothing else happens to Promethee. The drydown of clean vetiver with soapiness continues unchanged for the remainder of the perfume’s life, eventually turning into slightly soapy woodiness in its final hour. All in all, Promethee consistently lasted over 10 hours on my skin, depending on how much I applied. The sillage was moderate to soft. Using 3 big smears equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, the perfume opened with 3-4 inches of projection that dropped to 2 inches after 15 minutes. Promethee became a skin scent just under the 2.5 hour mark, and lasted roughly 11.5 hours. The projection numbers were only a shade less when I used the equivalent of 1 spray, but the longevity was still good.
On Fragrantica, there are 3 reviews for Promethee, and they’re generally mixed. One person basically says the perfume is gorgeous, but the two other reviews are much less enthused. Both of them express disappointment with Promethee’s synthetic heart and drydown, or with the scent as a whole. Take, for example, “Alfarom” who writes, in large part:
This is basically an extremely aromatic woody composition with floral facets. On paper, the pairing of fenugreek and sage, enhances a certain pee-like vibe which is sort of challenging and fascinating at the same time. On skin, the fenugreek leans more towards the anisic / licorice side of the spectrum bordering towards helichrysum territories. There’s an overall pepperiness throughout while incense still plays a relevant role. The florals are almost non-floral and bring evoking images of desert flowers, arid territories, sand dunes and warmness more than actually fresh flowers. The general arid-summery vibe is reinforced by myrtle and a slightly smoky styrax note.The main change in Durbano’s style though, comes in the drydown where the incense is paired to a sourish woody vetiver / musk combo which is not far removed from a bunch of the latest Hermes or synth-musky stuff a-la Diptyque Eau Mage / Escentric Molecules. [¶] Nice but, in the end, not completely convincing.
The perfume sounds even worse on “Colin Mallard” due to soapy detergent, ammonia similar to the “pee-like” note mentioned by Alfarom, a plethora of chemical synthetics, and strong echoes of mainstream designer scents. Like me, he too detected an “organic” woody-rooty element with the “feel of soil and earth.” The majority of his review is below, with my apologies to him for formatting it into 3 paragraphs for easier reading:
Promethée opens with a zesty and really aromatic head accord of citrus, pepper, a sweet-vanillic note with a bold earthy base, something fruity-rooty (I’d define it “Mediterranean”: it must be myrtle, which makes sense). Then something halfway hay and aniseed which I guess may be fenugreek, ambrette (well, some grayish ambroxan), herbal “culinary” herbs, and an artificial floral note which smells much soapy and kind of reminds me of shampoos’ secret ingredient that makes them smell all the same – galaxolide. Shortly, a half-creative, half-cheesy yet pleasant blend, which juxtaposes sour-fresh notes (both herbal and citrus) on a “bed” of silky, almost creamy notes, really clean and soapy, all wrapped in a earthy-woody-mossy Mediterranean accord of aromas and notes (woods, myrtle, hay…). And overall, it works. Or well… it would better if it was not for the bold, and kind of annoying synthetic mood: the citrus notes smell actually more like citral and ammonia stuff, and the soapy-floral stuff looks all about ketones and other aromachemicals, so it literally smells like detergent. [¶]
The evolution is interesting, though: the scent slowly gets darker, drier and turns towards a sort of woody-smoky-musky blend with a whiff of soap, slightly salty (vetiver, I guess) and a bit medicinal-spicy too, always with a remarkable aromatic feel – I keep getting something like aniseed, just more smoky, more fruity, with a feel of soil and earth. It also gets warmer and mossier, with “organic” wood-rooty notes and a hint of something halfway coffee and licorice (perhaps that’s the fenugreek). Shortly, a sort of post-atomic Mediterranean landscape, halfway natural and lunar, with a synthetic feel all over, mixing mainstream/designer echoes (some notes will smell quite familiar to anyone) with a “niche” approach – or attempt to, at least.[¶]
Overall in my opinion it’s not bad, I think there are some really nice ideas, and “analysis” aside, it smells undoubtedly (but barely) nice and elegant; just with a disappointing sense of cheapness which kind of makes the good ideas a bit wasted. Worth a try though, and considering the rest of nowadays’ niche, this is still better than dozens of other scents for sure. [Emphasis to aromachemical names added by me.]
I agree fully with his last paragraph and most of his analysis, though I experienced far less of an aromachemical profile and also far fewer nuances than he did. (Thank God, because I wouldn’t have been happy about “literally” smelling like detergent with humus and a whiff of pee.) Skin chemistry is obviously going to be critical, but I share his view that Promethee isn’t bad, it’s almost nice and elegant, it’s better than some designer, mainstream fragrances at least, and it has some interesting bits, but, ultimately, it is disappointing. That said, I think it’s much better than its sibling, Lapis Philosophorum, which was actually Durbano’s first foray into the same theme and has a lot of overlap with Promethee once the opening hour is over. Unfortunately, it reeks to high heaven of industrial-strength synthetics in a way that is truly unpleasant.
LAPIS PHILOSOPHORUM, PHILOSOPHER’S STONE:
Lapis Philosophorum is an eau de parfum that was released in 2013. On his website, Monsieur Durbano describes it, in part, as follows:.
Deep in crucibles and athanors alchemists searched for the Philosopher’s Stone that would change base metals into pure gold…
A “Corner stone” in architecture, the “Philosopher’s stone” in alchemy…
In the Arab language the world “stone” has a “hidden” dimension; wasn’t the search for the Philosopher’s Stone the search for the essence of man, divine like “the brightness of the sun”?
Woody, balsamic, sulphurous
Head Notes: Calamus, Juniper, Rum, White truffle, Grapefruit, Wine sediment
Heart Notes: Oman frankincense, Mesquite, Ambergris, Menthol
Bottom or Dry down Notes: Opoponax [Sweet Myrrh], Myrrh, Musk, Oak moss.
Lapis Philosophorum opens on my skin with aromatic freshness, and crisp, cool, zesty elements. There is yellow grapefruit that feels as though the bitter oils of the skin have been mixed with a lot of sour, chilled lemons. The citrus medley is infused with cool juniper that isn’t like gin but more like the aromatic tree on a snowy Alpine mountain. On its heels is sweet myrrh, frankincense, and a touch of dry woodiness.
All the notes are quickly drenched by a strong wave of antiseptic and medicinal synthetics. Part of it smells like ISO E Super, but not precisely. Mixed into it is menthol and the aroma of something like acetone alcohol which one person on Fragrantica compared to nail varnish remover. It’s absolutely true. The mix smells both like the rubbing alcohol that a doctor would use to disinfect your arm before an injection and like nail varnish remover, all infused with flickers of menthol and ISO E Super. Needless to say, I’m not enthused and, in all candour, I scrubbed Lapis Philosophorum the first few times I tried it.
At times, the opening bouquet isn’t completely hideous. As the antiseptics vie with the grapefruit-juniper mix for supremacy, a multi-faceted blend of incense appears and is quite nice. The sweet myrrh is particularly enjoyable, becoming the one saving grace of the first hour, particularly when combined with the Omani frankincense. Lapis Philosophorum is one of those fragrances where the accords jockey for position in a sort relay race for first place. When the incense accord dominates, the perfume is almost appealing. Almost.
10 minutes into its development, a new element arrives, and it is essentially the same earthy, humus-like accord present in Promethee. Here, again, it has a truffle-like nuance and is eventually dominated by something that smells identical to vetiver. It’s confusing because the latter isn’t mentioned as part of Lapis Philosophorum’s note list, but “vetiver” is not only what wafts from my skin in the opening of the fragrance, it becomes the primary focus of the scent later on. For now, though, it engages in a three-way race with the incense accord and the mixed antiseptic synthetics. The three together manage to drown out the juniper and citrus which disappear entirely after another 15 minutes.
There isn’t a lot else that happens in the opening hour. There is no “wine sediment,” rum, oakmoss, labdanum, or ambered warmth on my skin. The antiseptic and nail varnish simply become stronger, while the rest of the scent is merely several different kinds of incense with earthy, vetiver-like greenness. In the base is a thin streak of woodiness that smells far more like green cedar than mesquite wood. I’m very familiar with the latter, as it is quite common where I live for barbeque wood, spice rubs, meat infusions, and some culinary dishes. Lapis Philosophorum does not smell like mesquite to me, but there is an occasional suggestion of cedar instead.
All of it feels increasingly hazy, with the notes first overlapping then quickly turning after 30 minutes into same sort of faceless, indistinct blur that so marked Promethee. At the end of the first hour, the perfume becomes softer and quieter, a blend of earthy, green, vetiver-like humus with incense, woodiness, and nail varnish synthetics. Once in a blue moon, there are tiny pops of something herbal that resemble fennel and fenugreek, mixed with a tiny dash of pepper, but they lie in the distant background, heavily muffled to the point of obscurity, and don’t last for long.
Just like Promethee, the drydown begins near the end of the 4th hour and, just like Promethee, it is primarily vetiver (or something that smells exactly like it) with synthetics and clean musk in a thin bouquet that slowly transitions to soapy vetiver. In its final hours, all that’s left is soapy woodiness. All in all, it lasted just over 8.25 hours with 3 good smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle. The projection felt stronger than Promethee as a whole, probably because Lapis Philosophorum feels as though it has 20 times the amount of industrial-strength chemicals. The perfume opened with 3-4 inches of projection, but had a definite sillage trail at times, which I didn’t really feel with Promethee. Lapis Philosophorum turned into a skin scent after 4.25 hours, but it didn’t last as long as its sibling in the line, perhaps because it is thinner and wispier in body. It’s also a cooler, more severe scent than Promethee, lacking its vague suggestion of ambered warmth as well as its spicy vibe.
On Fragrantica, the reviews are mixed. One chap writing in French calls the perfume total cacophony (“Cacophonie totale”) with discordant notes that makes the scent too expensive for what it is. For “Roge,” Lapis Philosophorum “smells like alcohol, nail polish remover and the bottom of a woman’s make up bag rolled into one. This is a dud on all accounts.” Others are more positive, however. One person found its balsamic character “intriguing,” while another describes Lapis Philosophorum as “boozy and incensey and smoky/spicy with solid sillage and long duration..really exotic with an Amouage kind of vibe!”
Alfarom who was so negative about Promethee liked Lapis Philosophorum more, writing in part:
The fragrance opens with a winey accord and gas-like undertones that while sounding definitely OTT, at the same time they’re so nicely played and orchestrated to give birth to a pretty novel and necessary twist to an otherwise *no-surprise* kind of composition. There’s also an overall mentholated vibe which shows up since the early stages of the opening and remarks its presence throughout the late drydown, which is particularly interesting. As I previously said, the whole composition developes around a thick incense base that’s pretty bombastic and tenacious if not a tad too *conventional*. With that said, I find Lapis Philosophorum to be overall quite successful and interesting enough to warrant a full positive rating. [¶] Good stuff. [¶] Rating: 7.5/10
I generally tend to agree with Alfarom who I think is an excellent, very talented, astute reviewer, but I have to part ways with him this time. I dislike Lapis Philosophorum, and think it is a mish-mash of industrial-strength chemicals mixed with one basic, elemental accord to create a scent lacking in redeeming nuances, interesting qualities, or complex development. If I want a wholly generic, indistinct mix of dark, earthy greenness with smokiness and intense synthetics, there are cheaper ways to go than $205 for a bottle of Lapis Philosophorum. For truly good incense fragrances with woody and/or herbal elements, there are better alternatives, particularly from Amouage for roughly the same amount.
In short, if you have to bother with one of the two Durbano scents, then I would suggest Promethee, particularly if you are a vetiver lover or enjoy oriental fougères. If you’re a hardcore incense lover and don’t mind industrial-strength aromachemicals, then give Lapis Philosophorum a sniff, but I’d suggest keeping your expectations very low.