Woods and herbaceous fields, spices and sweetness, incense and leathery smoke — those are some of the various strands of Mortal Skin, the latest release from Stéphane Humbert Lucas. It is a scent that echoes some of his other fragrances for me, but it is ultimately its own creation, and one which I think will appeal to lovers of spicy, smoky, woody orientals.
Mortal Skin is a new parfum or extrait that initially looked as though it were being released under Stéphane Humbert Lucas’ own name, unlike the 777 fragrances. That confused me at first, so I asked Monsieur Lucas about it and about the significance of the “777” being omitted from the packaging. He explained that “777” is merely one collection within his overall brand, which should officially be considered as “Stephane Humbert Lucas” as a whole. The Snake Collection is a separate line altogether and has its own signature aesthetic. He provided the images above to underscore how the packaging emphasizes that “777” is merely a collection, not part of his brand name. He also brought up Kilian, who has various unrelated lines, like the Arabian Nights, the Addictive State of Mind, or the Asian Tales.
Mortal Skin is the debut release in The Snake Collection, along with the new Harrods Exclusive, and it will be slowly rolled out at all regular SHL retailers over the next 6 weeks. Luckyscent already has it, with Osswald NYC to follow in a few weeks. In Europe, I’ve been told that it is already out at Harrods. The fragrance originally debuted at the Esxence perfume show in March, but that was an earlier version that has been substantially altered since then. Monsieur Lucas told me that, in total, Mortal Skin has gone through roughly 200 or so modifications before being finalised after Esxence with the version that will be hitting stores shortly. I’ll explain the specific changes in a moment.
Mortal Skin seeks to evoke a snake, from the scaly reptilian head on the bottle to olfactory notes that are symbolically meant to replicate the icy-hot effects of a snake’s venomous bite. The press materials provided to me describe the scent as follows:
The perfume, languid and colorful, hypnotizes me,
I am facing two eyes that desire me.
Leafy coolness, fruits, the magic of the encounter,
The seduction begins.
The perfume rises up and paralyses me,
The fangs ooze, wanting to sink into me.
Throbbing heat mixed with blue cold, I think I am bitten.
Sandalwood, tequila, intoxication.
Bestiality, brutality, journey,
The perfume smells of hot ash.
Life slips away.
It now knows that all is beautiful.
Elegance. Captivity. Letting Go.
Many of the SHL fragrances have merely nutshell synopses for their note lists because Monsieur Lucas prefers not to get into the actual details and wants you to simply feel the scent, but Mortal Skin is different. It comes with a long, official list:
Top Notes: Blackberry, Marine Ink, Galbanum, Frankincense, Labdanum [Amber]
Heart Notes: Opoponax [Sweet Myrrh], Iris, Davana, Saffran, Myrrh, Cardamom
Base Notes: Ambergris, Storax [Styrax], Sandalwood, Labdanum, Civet, Atlas Cedarwood, Birch, Musk.
That list is different from what it used to be, and is also different from what is currently quoted on First in Fragrance. As I mentioned at the start of this review, Mortal Skin was changed and further tweaked since its Esxence pre-debut 5 months ago. Monsieur Lucas told me that the earlier version had been primarily woody in nature, had a different focus in its base, and included a large amount of guaiac and sandalwood. That is no longer the case. The final Mortal Skin has no guaiac listed at all, and I believe the amount of sandalwood was drastically altered as well. Instead, a lot of galbanum was added up top, along with a hefty amount of saffron in the heart. As a result of adding both galbanum and saffron, while simultaneously reducing or eliminating various woods in the base, Mortal Skin changed its focus, moving away from a primarily wood-centric scent into something spicier, sweeter, and with a significant, strong herbaceous greenness that is meant to symbolically evoke a snake’s venom.
Mortal Skin opens on my skin with dark, warm, spiced sweetness that is laced with myrrh incense, lightly sprinkled with iris and green herbs, and then enveloped within a strong cloud of cool, silvery cleanness. The latter isn’t easy to describe because it is not precisely salty, watery, ozonic, metallic, or soapy clean, per se. And, yet, it hints at all those things. For the most part, though, it smells ozonic more than anything resembling actual “ink,” and evokes thoughts of crisp cotton linen that has been freshly dry cleaned, though it’s not an overtly or strongly synthetic vibe.
Within minutes, Mortal Skin begins to shift, as the herbaceous greenness doubles and then triples in strength. It, too, smells clean, but it is primarily like dried, sweet herbs rather than typical galbanum. The latter is not one of my favorite notes because it is frequently so green, bitter, and pungent as to skew black in visuals and leathery in undertone. That is not the case here at all. The smell is more like rosemary, dried anise, and dried, sweet grasses, with undertones that remind me of artemisia, angelica and, once in a while, dried thyme. At the same time, it feels unexpectedly clean (thanks to the ozonic side of the “ink”) and airily cool. I suspect the iris has something to do with that last part. On my skin, the iris in Mortal Skin is vaguely, nebulously floral, occasionally like powdered sweetness, but never rooty, earthy, musty, or cosmetic. It is a very muted, subtle note and, again, the best way I can explain it in the opening stage is as “airy, cool lightness.”
While the herbaceous greenness and cool, ozonic cleanness are the strongest threads in the opening, there are other elements that follow closely behind. A quiet, semi-sweet incense weaves its way throughout the top notes, smelling more of opoponax sweet myrrh with a touch of nuttiness rather than the purely liturgical myrrh with its soapy, musty, dusty, or woody tonalities. Everything is suffused with a dark, golden cloud that is ambered in feel and in impression more than smelling of actual, clear, explicit labdanum or ambergris. The spices are generously plastered on top, again more abstract than clearly delineated layers. Something about the two things together gives off a spicy patchouli-amber vibe to me, rather than wafting distinct layers of saffron and cardamom. One reason why might be because Mortal Skin is extremely well blended, so several of its parts are subsumed within a bouquet that is something a blur of spicy, herbaceous, green, warm, cool, sweet, and soft woodiness.
All of it feels surprisingly airy for a scent with such rich notes. Using 3 sprays from my decant equal to approximately 2 sprays from an actual bottle, Mortal Skin opened with only 3 inches of projection and a very light scent trail that was about 4 to 5 inches. The bouquet was never dense, opaque, or heavy in either body, weight, or feel. It wasn’t precisely sheer, but it was airier than I had expected. Later on, Mortal Skin deepens, grows richer, stronger, and fractionally heavier in feel, but only relative to the opening phase. It certainly isn’t as concentrated in feel or as instantly bold in character as Black Gemstone, Oud 777, and O Hira.
Mortal Skin continues to shift quite rapidly. The first hint of something fruity pops up in the background after 15 minutes, and then turns quite clear at the 30-minute mark. On me, it smells like raspberry more than anything resembling blackberry. With every step forward that it takes, the ozonic cleanness of the “ink” takes one step back. 40 minutes in, Mortal Skin starts to turn increasingly sweet and smoky, and is far less clean, though the sweet, herbal greenness remains as noticeable as ever. In fact, the sillage or scent trail primarily wafts dried herbs, abstract spiciness, and opoponax more than anything else at this point. But Mortal Skin’s notes are re-aligning and the base soon starts to wake up. By the end of the first hour, a leathery, balsamic streak begins to stir, and the styrax starts to seep upwards. At the same time, the “raspberry” note turns more syrupy, smudging the herbs and the spice-laden woods with greater sweetness.
The funny thing about Mortal Skin on my skin is that the notes throw off very different facets in the opening two hours on my right arm versus the left. I’ve tried the fragrance five times now, and it’s always the same story. On my right arm, the notes I detected at the opening were: styrax; something strongly resembling spicy-woody patchouli; raw-ish leather (that consisted of smoky birch tar, with a touch of cade and isobutyl quinoline); raspberry; fresh anise; “oud;” cedar; and a hint of tonka-ish, powdered sweetness. There was no ozonic cleanness or iris-y coolness; the herbaceousness was different and more aromatic; the fragrance felt strongly leathery; and the frankincense dominated instead of the myrrh. To the extent that the latter showed its face, it was merely as a quiet dab of nuttiness amidst the incense.
This Mortal Skin is overtly woody and leathery in nature, with the styrax and birch tar swirling about right from the start, followed by the frankincense. They rapidly merge with the “raspberry” (which is far more syrupy than what appears on my left arm), and the very patchouli-like aroma of the spice-amber-wood combination. The result in the first 30 minutes was a scent that called to mind a wood-centric, spicier, more herbal cousin to Black Gemstone mixed with a touch of Tom Ford‘s Tuscan Leather. As the fruity note grew stronger, sweeter, and thicker, it gave the scent almost a gourmand quality, feeling as though a different version of the fruity syrup in 777’s Une Nuit à Doha had been layered over the smoky, aromatic, woody parts of Black Gemstone, with amped-up spiciness atop it all. The herbaceous greenness is a subtler accord on this arm, but, at the start of the 2nd hour, it suddenly starts to smell like artemisia or absinthe wormwood on my skin instead of mere aromatics, rosemary, or anise. In conjunction with the incense, it creates an accord that somehow resembled Cambodian oud on my skin. It is merely a small hint at first, but it later grows far more pronounced and made me think of the smoky, tarry, birch and agarwood mixes in Oud 777 and Oumma.
In short, this version of Mortal Skin developed into something with echoes of the spicy, warm, darkness of Black Gemstone and the smoky woods of a less overtly “oud-y” Oud 777 and Oumma, all tied together by a syrupy sweetness similar to Une Nuit à Doha, except the fruit here is “raspberry” instead of orange. I’m not saying that Mortal Skin is identical to all those scents or a tired retread, but there were definite echoes on my skin that make it very clear the same hand is behind them all. Were I to smell Mortal Skin blindly, I would have no doubt that Stephane Humbert Lucas created it. There is just something about the nature of the incense, sweetness, woods, spices, leathery styrax, and quietly ambered warmth that feels like a clear signature.
All of this may be happening on my right arm, but the version on the left arm always ends up in the same place. It merely takes longer, and the two versions don’t always have the same emphasis on individual notes. It takes roughly 3 hours for the fragrance on my left and right arms to align or become almost the same. The difference is that the bouquet on my right arm is occasionally smokier, sweeter, more heavily incensed, and more leathery than the scent on my left arm. It’s merely a question of degree. In both cases, Mortal Skin feels much deeper, richer, darker, and even a little bit stronger than it did in its opening stage, though the projection is only 1.5 to 1 inch at best at this point. In both cases, too, the notes seamlessly overlap and are slowly turning blurry instead of being clearly delineated, distinct layers.
Roughly 3.5 hours into its development, Mortal Skin enters into its main heart phase as a swirl of warm, smoky woods layered with abstract spiciness, tarry leatheriness, black incense, balsamic darkness, and vaguely raspberry-ish fruited sweetness. The latter is now more like dried raspberries mixed with a dash of tonka-like powderiness (that I assume comes from the iris), and is much less syrupy. The herbaceous greenness remains, but it’s now muffled behind the wall of woods and smoke, and it’s impossible to pull out its individual parts. The coolness has completely vanished and, for a few hours, the ink’s ozonic, vaguely dry cleaning-like aroma does too, though it’s only temporary .
The birch tar and smoky styrax really abound on my skin, and sometimes dominate the scent even more than the woods. The latter continues to smell vaguely, nebulously oud-ish to me on occasion, though the mental association is not strong as it was before. I don’t detect cedar in any clear way, and the sandalwood never resembles Mysore. It smells like one of the smokier sandalwood synthetics. I’ll be frank, I’m not keen on its occasional sharpness, which feels quite pronounced by the middle of the 5th hour, though it’s never as egregious or as strong as the sandalwood aromachemicals in many of Nasomatto fragrances, or the hideously unbalanced, shrill Javanol in Tom Ford‘s Santal Blush.
Mortal Skin’s heart phase lasts quite a few hours and never changes drastically. The tarry, leathery resins fuse with the smoky woods and the spices to create a central, dominant core. Everything else weaves its way around that. The “raspberry” fruitiness, the herbal greenness, and the frankincense fluctuate in strength, but are increasingly hard to separate out from the main accord. The sweetness weakens a hair, largely because of the growing smokiness of the sandalwood synthetic. I don’t detect civet in any way on my skin, and it didn’t show up in any of my tests. There is no noticeable ambergris, either, merely a generalised, dark warmth.
To my surprise, from the middle of the 6th hour onwards, the “maritime ink” note pops back up on the sidelines from time to time, its ozonic cleanness occasionally smelling salty and actually, properly “inky” in a way that it never did at the opening. It makes Mortal Skin feel edgier, less traditional or expected. But something about the scent also feels more synthetic, though I can’t figure out if it stems from the occasional burst of ozonic “ink,” from the clean musk listed in the notes, or from the increasingly strong sandalwood aromachemical.
Mortal Skin isn’t significantly different when its drydown begins roughly around the start of the 8th hour. At first, the greatest change is that the leatheriness fades substantially, becoming only a faint sliver in the background, while a purely abstract, quiet creaminess appears in the base. It helps to take some of the edge off the synthetic, wooded smokiness, but not a lot. The vaguely raspberry-ish fruitiness remains; so does the herbal greenness, though I keep thinking that it’s about to fade away for good, only to notice small ripples weaving around the background. It’s the same story with the ozonic clean note. For the most part, though, Mortal Skin smells primarily like sweet, spicy woodiness that is wrapped up with smokiness and smudged with wisps of berried fruitiness, all atop a nebulously creamy woodiness.
Two other big changes occur later, around the start of the 10th hour. First, Mortal Skin’s cleanness grows quite pronounced. It still smells ozonic, but the dry-cleaning vibe is stronger, perhaps due to the musk listed in the notes. Whatever the actual source, I find the synthetic, laundry cleanness unappealing. As a side note, the aroma was much more subtle when I applied a smaller quantity of Mortal Skin, roughly 1 good spray instead of 2. In both cases, though, the laundry cleanness never alters Mortal Skin’s main focus: spicy, sweet, smoky woods. The second big change surprised me: the fragrance actually grows even sweeter than before, the syrupy quality returning to mix with the smokiness in a way that feels quite acrid. I’m afraid I’m not keen on that part, either. The harsh, scratchy sweetness becomes so dominant that, in Mortal Skin’s final moments, all that’s left is a blur of smoky, woody sweetness.
All in all, Mortal Skin had very good longevity, generally soft projection, and moderate sillage. It lasted between 11 and 14 hours, depending on whether I applied 1 spray, 2 sprays, or 3. Regardless of quantity, though, the opening projection was generally about 3 inches, and never more than 4. The opening scent trail or sillage was always between 4 to 5 inches. After 90 minutes, the projection typically dropped to about 1.5 inches, then to around 1 inch after 3 hours, but the fragrance remained there for quite a while. Mortal Skin generally became a skin scent on me after 6 or 6.5 hours, though it was still easy to detect up close without much effort until well into the 9th hour. I think part of that stems from the fact that my skin tends to amplify aromachemicals like the sandalwood and the clean musk, so the fragrance may be quieter on others. As a whole, I think Mortal Skin is a softer scent than some of its siblings, and is both lighter in body and airier in feel than the popular ones like Black Gemstone, O Hira, Khol de Bahrein, or Soleil de Jeddah.
Mortal Skin is too new to have an entry on Fragrantica at the time of this review, but you can check their general SHL 777 list later to find it and to see what others say about the scent. In terms of blog analysis, Colognoisseur has a recent review for the Esxence version but, as I said at the start of this post, that is not the finalised version which is being sold in stores. Still, you can read his take for the general outlines of the scent, even if the specifics and focus are different now.
As a whole, I thought Mortal Skin had some interesting facets, but it is not for me personally. While it is a solid scent, it didn’t blow me off my feet. I don’t consider it to be a masterpiece like Black Gemstone; and it didn’t draw me in from the first instant like either the resinous labdanum soliflore, O Hira, or the ambered, iris-y gourmand Khol de Bahrein. It’s not as unique as the cherry-latex, red ash of Qom Chilom; as vividly bold as Soleil de Jeddah with its sunny, glowing citrus and leather; or as charismatically fierce as Oud 777. I also found it excessively sweet for my personal tastes, and I didn’t enjoy how its merger with the smokiness occasionally felt acrid, though the latter may be a matter of individual skin chemistry.
In some ways, though, Mortal Skin might be a more versatile scent than some of its siblings simply because it is not so distinctive or intense. If you’ve liked other things in the line, and absolutely love herbal, smoky, sweet, and spicy woodiness, you may enjoy it quite a bit. Plus, it’s priced (relatively) well for the sort of fragrance and brand that it is. Mortal Skin is in the middle of the SHL range at $290 or €235 for 50 ml of pure parfum. If you’re a fan of the SHL line as a whole, it’s definitely worth a test sniff.
Disclosure: My decant was provided courtesy of Stéphane Humbert Lucas. That did not influence this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.