My Reviews en Bref are always for scents that, for whatever reason, may not warrant one of my more exhaustive, detailed assessments. Today, it’s for Gris Clair, a Serge Lutens fragrance that I found utterly unbearable all five times that I tried it over the last seven months.
Gris Clair is a lavender-centric eau de parfum created by Christopher Sheldrake and released nine years ago in 2006. The Serge Lutens website describes the scent in the usual abstract terms:
“Like pollen blowing over a lifeless city.
As grey as ashes floating through a sky of sunbeams. Lavender, then, to add grey to clarity, I added incense. I’m crazy about it! In every sense, incense makes sense to my senses.” Serge Lutens
Serge Lutens always keeps the note list secret, but Luckyscent guesses Gris Clair includes:
lavender, amber, tonka bean, iris, dry wood, incense.
I would add laundry clean musk to that list because Gris Clair opens on my skin with icy lavender that has been crystallized with sugar then flash-frozen in a dense fog of laundry clean musk. Slivers of dry cedar poke out here and there, as does a handful of hay from the tonka/coumarin, but the overwhelming impression is of candied lavender hairspray turned from vapour into something icier. I’ve noticed that the newer Lutens fragrances that explore chilly or glassy themes all do so via copious amounts of white musk, like the hideous Laine de Verre. Gris Clair seems to have been the first foray into the icy genre.
It’s a difficult opening that only gets worse, so much so that I’m not sure where to begin. Take the lavender. For a brief moment, it was actually nice, despite the candied quality. A subtle creaminess infused it, while the sweetness worked to muzzle its usual pungency, herbaceousness, and medicinal facets. Yet, 10 minutes in, those emerge in full force, blasting with a grey ferocity that recalls all the reasons why I ran screaming from the smallest whiff of the plant for decades. My hatred for lavender may have softened over the last few years, but it is primarily gourmand, lavender tonka ice-cream that I can tolerate, not this hideously pungent version so common in the Provençal dried sachets that tormented me as a child.
There is little in Gris Clair to make things better as a counterbalance. The hairspray vibe softens, but it is replaced by soapiness that evokes laundry drier sheets instead. Much more problematic are two elements that suddenly appear less than 10 minutes into Gris Clair’s development: an aggressively sharp incense smokiness and an equally synthetic dry woodiness. Both explode on the scene, completely shifting the fragrance’s profile from fresh, creamy, and candied lavender with iciness and cleanness to extremely pungent, dry lavender that is wrapped up with black smokiness on a bed of raspy woods. The clean musk remains (alas) to serve as a bridge between the two layers.
From this point forth, Gris Clair is essentially a constantly fluctuating race between five main, completely overlapping chords: pungent lavender, incense, candied sweetness, laundry clean musk, and dry woods. For a while, the sweetness is the very least of my problems, but that soon changes. Roughly 20 minutes in, the sugar returns with such force that it is positively jarring. It feels as though the back of my throat were actually coated with scratchy sugar granules, and the fragrance left a sore, irritated effect each time I tried it. It reminds me of the really cheap white icing on supermarket cupcakes, only this is far more excessive. The lavender’s herbaceous pungency fights the sugar for supremacy, each one screeching louder and louder until I feel as though I were wearing a candied lavender medicine.
The laundry musk is not far behind, emitting now an industrial chemical twinge, but it is the incense which is the final nail in the coffin. It is just plain off — in ways that I cannot adequately describe. It is simply nasty with a jarring, harsh scratchiness that conjured up the image of Brillo pads. That said, the incense is so fully intertwined with the other problematic elements that it’s difficult for me to pinpoint which one is really to blame. Even the woodiness feels raspy, and don’t get me started again on the sugar. Have I mentioned just how egregiously synthetic this fragrance is as a whole?
The first hour is utterly brutal for me in its imbalanced, unrefined cacophonic mix of pungency, smokiness, sweetness, cleanness, and woodiness, but Gris Clair does fractionally improve and soften later on. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late. As I said at the start of the review, I’ve tried Gris Clair five times over the last seven months, and I’ve scrubbed it off each time. The first time, I lasted a mere 10 minutes but, by my 3rd test, I had worked my way up to an hour. The fifth and last time, I managed a full 4 hours before I could no longer bear it and gave up. The mix of aggressively pungent lavender with diabetes-inducing saccharine, industrial cleanness, desiccated woods, and scratchy incense was too much.
It doesn’t help that Gris Clair’s core essence never changes dramatically from this hideous barrage. The various notes jockey for the lead and often change places as the dominant chord, but that is a merely a question of degree. For the most part, the scent is linear, lacking the twists and turns so common to other Lutens creations. That said, Gris Clair does see some minor variations. A caramel sweetness arrives at the end of the first hour; the raspy woods join the main notes on center stage; and a quiet tonka creaminess stirs in the base. Eventually, it seeps up top, turning Gris Clair into a bouquet of crystallized, sugared lavender and cream, laced with harsh incense, drenched with laundry musk, and resting atop a base of synthetic creamy woods. It’s somewhat more tolerable (barely) than the ghastly opening, but I was too exhausted after 4 hours to want another moment of it.
All I could do when wearing Gris Clair was to compare it to Fourreau Noir, a Lutens bell jar fragrance that is so superb, this lavender-phobe bought a full bottle. It was my first lavender fragrance ever, and one that I found compulsively addictive from the start. Like Gris Clair, it has smoky incense, sweetness, tonka creaminess, and woodiness, albeit via the use of woody, spicy patchouli instead of cedar. But that is as far as the similarities go, in my opinion. To use a fashion simile, Gris Clair is like a ’70s, scratchy, polyester jumpsuit with a hodgepodge of jarring elements, while Fourreau Noir would be Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, one of the Master’s silky outfits from his oriental period fused with his beloved ambered goldenness and his black. The two scents are worlds apart. I suspect reformulation is partially to blame for Gris Clair’s current profile, since every old Lutens has been significantly changed after a period of time and Gris Clair is now nine years old, but I think Oncle Serge’s interest in juxtaposed olfactory contrasts and his 10-year long obsession with iciness play an even greater role in why Gris Clair is the way it is.
Generally, in my full reviews, I like to provide other people’s perspectives on a scent, but I rarely do that in the Reviews en Bref and I’m not going to do so here. I want to block the whole experience out as soon as possible, so you’re free to look up comments on Fragrantica where most people seem to adore it. The majority of Luckyscent reviews are really positive, too, though a few found the scent was either medicinal, overly soapy like shaving cream, or bearing a Grape Kool-Aid note. They, like me, are in a definite minority because Gris Clair is quite a popular scent. And, honestly, it pains me that I loathe Gris Clair as I do because there is no-one whom I worship more in the perfume world on an individual, personal level than Oncle Serge. Unfortunately, I think Gris Clair is simply unbearable, but if you adore sugar-frosted gourmands, smoky lavender, and clean freshness, you will probably feel quite differently.