Serge Lutens, Section d’Or Fragrances & Some Personal Thoughts

In an ideal world, perfume should lift you, move you, and make you happy. You don’t expect it to send you into a funk, fill you with overwhelming sadness and a tinge of despair, particularly not when the perfume comes from one of your favorite houses, from a brand justifiably celebrated the world over for its visionary brilliance, and from a man who you respect and admire above all others. Unfortunately, sadness and feeling depressed are precisely what ensued when I tried the remaining three new Section d’Or releases from Serge Lutens. I wish that were dramatic exaggeration or hyperbole, but it is not.

La Vierge de Fer bell jar.

La Vierge de Fer bell jar.

It’s been a struggle over the last few years whenever I’ve tried one of the latest Lutens fragrances, a constant warring between my love of the old classics and my difficulty with the brand’s new direction. I played Devil’s Advocate with myself, saying it was unfair and selfish of me to expect an artist to keep doing the same thing that once made him famous and celebrated, that it was understandable for Oncle Serge to want to try new things, and that I shouldn’t impose my taste preferences on how someone expressed their creativity. I tried to reason that the quality was still there (against some pretty solid evidence of Sephora-like synthetic commercialism like La Vierge de Fer and Laine de Verre). And I tried to keep my growing frustration in check.

The new Section d’Or Collection originally gave me hope because the first release, L’Incendiaire, seemed to promise a return to the dark orientalism that made me love Lutens to begin with. Okay, the price was very high and it wasn’t the most inventive or creative fragrance around in its remix of old hits, but at least we were heading in a good direction, eschewing things like the hideously icy Eaux or unchallenging, commercially safe, clean compositions in favour of the dark richness or orientalism that the brand had once displayed all the time. It was a start. Oncle Serge still had it, I told myself, at least somewhere in there, right? The well hadn’t run dry and there was hope, right? The next ones would be a return to form, I told myself. Right?



After trying two of this year’s five new releases, L’Haleine des Dieux and Sidi Bel-Abbes, I felt crushed. And incredibly confused. That bewilderment was heightened when a friend who loves Lutens and niche fragrances, and who thoughtfully sent me samples of the remaining three — Renard Constrictor, Cracheuse de Flammes, and Cannibale — told me that I’d already tried the best of the lot. I didn’t understand what he meant because I couldn’t understand what he meant. “How is that even remotely possible?,” I asked myself. Guaiac Cream of Wheat and a very generic, linear, smoky, amber-woody aromachemical scent were the best of the lot, the comparatively “good ones”??! I didn’t believe him. He couldn’t possibly be right.

He was right. To my utter disbelief and despondency, the last three are somehow even worse. Not only are they less interesting, distinctive, and creative, more synthetic and/or commercially safe, but they put what little fragile hope I had for the future into jeopardy. To be fair, none of the five new releases are hideous or terrible fragrances as compared to what you’d find in a cheap department store. But when measured against the great Serge Lutens and what once came before, they are either average or, in one case, brutally mediocre to below average. And when considered against the high price tag — $700, €600, or £500 in one case for a small 50 ml bottle — they are lamentably derivative, lacking that special Lutens magic and innovative originality.

Serge Lutens photo for a Shiseido ad/

Serge Lutens photo for a Shiseido ad.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was almost on the verge of tears at one point. It’s not any one particular or individual fragrance that did it, but the sum-total of what all five represent in conjunction with what has been happening in recent years with the regular releases. I don’t handle loss or the loss of glory well when it comes to one of my icons. This was a trailblazing house but I’ve always loved and admired Serge Lutens, the man, more than his fragrances. To me, he’s one of the last true greats of the 20th century, up there with people like my beloved Yves St. Laurent, and the perfume version of Picasso, except better in some ways because he had visionary brilliance in a multitude of areas, not just one. (You can read Part I of a profile I did on his early years and his work in fashion, makeup, photography, and film before he set his sights on perfume to see what I mean.)



I haven’t understood for some years now what’s happened to the originality, beauty, style, and general aesthetic of the brand. Not all the old fragrances were wearable to me, but that was usually because they were more like Art with a capital “A.” (Hello, Iris Silver Mist and your futuristic, sci-fi iris.)

But now, I’m truly flummoxed and saddened. These latest fragrances were like seeing a loved one dying, metaphorically speaking. The death rattle is loud, it’s crushing the joyous anticipation I once felt at the mere thought of a new Lutens, and it’s becoming harder and harder with every new release not to give up hope entirely. Matters aren’t helped by alarming portents for the future from Shiseido, like their stated plans to open Lutens boutiques around the world (thereby diluting the uniqueness, the power, and the sanctity of the Palais Royale temple), and their official takeover of the Serge Lutens trademark.

If you think that I’m being overly emotional, it’s not just me who is feeling this way. Mark Behnke, the former Managing Editor at CaFleureBon who now writes at his own site, Colognoisseur, seems to have thrown in the towel entirely after the latest Section d’Or fragrances. He couldn’t even bring himself to properly review them, and his clearly grieving post actually paraphrases Don McLean’s “American Pie” song about the day the music died. His final words above the standard sample disclosure are: “Adieu! It was fun while it lasted.” Two friends of mine echoed similar feelings after trying the latest releases and think the house is finished, its greatness gone for good. A third, the one who sent me the 3 new samples, doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet, but is clearly confounded by the “mediocrity.”

I can’t give up just yet, simply because of my admiration and love for Serge Lutens, the man. So, I will try to cover the last three of the new fragrances as best as I can in the upcoming days and with as much objectivity or balance as I can muster, starting first with reviews for Renard Constrictor, then Cracheuse de Flammes and Cannibale, but I’m warning you now that my heart isn’t in it.

46 thoughts on “Serge Lutens, Section d’Or Fragrances & Some Personal Thoughts

  1. I feel your pain. It am in love with most of the SL classics, and didn’t know what to make of Bas de Soie, Nuit de Cellophane and all the others released since. I have even given up on my old familiar loves like Chergui, Fumerie Turque, Daim Blond to name just a few, because when I smelled the reformulated version, I felt gutted, shocked, cheated, betrayed, and yes, on the verge of tears, moaning the death of all those amazing scents. SL killed my favourites. Maybe it is time to move on, try to find beauty elsewhere.

    • Oh God, Nuit de Cellophane… such a totally bipolar, schizophrenic fragrance! 🙁 (And unappealing, too!) The reformulation of the good ones is very depressing, I agree. Another commentator actually seemed close to tears in a recent comment about De Profundis which she re-tested a few weeks ago and found to be dramatically changed. I think reformulations of one’s oldest, most beloved, dearest favorites really can make one feel “gutted,” but when there aren’t new beauties from the house to take their place? That’s worse in some ways, or perhaps an additional layer of pain.

      In your case, do you ever go on the hunt for the vintage versions of your favorites, perhaps searching on eBay for bottles whose boxes bear the old style of SL logo? (I think you once told me that one of them was your husband’s former signature scent and favorite, no?) Or have you truly given up on those scents entirely?

      In my case, I refuse to move on completely, for now, but I won’t deny I’m inching closer to the door with every new thing I smell. I would feel like a traitor if I said that there are better and more interesting brands out there now, but it’s hard not to think that privately from time to time….

      • Dear Kafka, you have an amazing memory! Yes, my husband wore Gris Clair for 6 years (at the rate of one bottle per 3 years) and when he drained the last drops, I was a bit afraid that the “new” Gris Clair would disappoint him, plus I wanted him to try something else, so I gave him MFK Amyris pour Homme. I’m not even sure he likes it, but for now he wears it.
        As for me, yes, when I see a bottle with the Palais logo, my heart skips a beat and my fingers itch to bid. I have bought some back up bottles that I’m guarding with my life. I admit that I can’t completely give up either: my mind tells me to move on, that I have enough other perfumes already, but then when I smell those good ole SL, I can’t help but admire the depth and richness of the scents. I’m still looking for back ups of a few scents but those are very unlikely to pop up, and if they do I doubt it will be at a reasonable price. Still, l’espoir fait vivre 😉

  2. Happiest of Holidays, Beloved Kafka! I honestly have entirely left the world of expensive fragrances begining with the 777 Line’s introduction back in January of 2014. Honestly, it was painful last year, but given the general disappointment in the Frag Comm from 2015’s hideously high priced offerings i.e. Kilian’s Russian Eggs, Amouage Sunshine, and these Lutens, for starters, I have gone from, hopeless to an almost relieved state of mind. (Please note I do not mean to imply smugness here, as I believe it to be a pejorative state of being, and therefore do not practice it.) All I can say is that I am sad for you, Dear. Oncle lost me entirely with Laine de Verre, because to me it smelled like Mc Donalds bathroom handsoap. I had such high hopes for it after L’Eau Froid was a much better (to me) offering than L’Eau. (I don’t expect you to remember everything about me but it bears repeating in this instance that I live in muggy, humid Florida) . I was sent a sample of L’Incendiare and was actually happy that it was something I could never wear, and I didn’t even bother to seek out the rest of this collection. I honestly do not know what to say except, I can empathize with your sincere pain, as I experienced somthing akin to it in 2014 when I was forced to realize that I really didn’t make enough money to continue to actively persue Fragrances as a hobby, given the constant race to produce these uber-expensive offerings. For me, it has become, easier to deal with with each, accumulating, dissapointed review I read. Sadly, I honestly believe for you, your dissapointment is only begining. I am sorry. I think creativity and vision in Niche Perfumes, has seen it’s glory days, and is, depressingly, begining the downward spiral. With that said, I still wish you a Blessed Holiday Season, and in the words of my Grampy, “Keep a Lip Upper Stiff”!!! <3

    • I can understand why you’ve given up, my dear, but I do think that there are some lovely fragrances out there that don’t cost a fortune, which reflect a truly creative vision, or just smell damn good. (I still think you’d love Moon Bloom, for example, given your feelings about tuberose.)

      Unfortunately, I think you’re right in that one has to weed through a lot of mediocrity to get to the good stuff, and there is certainly an ever-growing number of fragrances that hit the market each year. The numbers grow each year, and there is no way that great time, effort, and quality can go into every creation when a house is putting out 5 things a year or at a time. There is a definite race-like quality or aspect that is quite frustrating.

      In this case, I blame Shiseido far more than Oncle Serge, but that doesn’t change the end result unfortunately. Regardless, it’s the holiday season, and I shall follow your grandfather’s words to keep a stiff, upper lip! Happy holidays, my dear. xoxo

  3. Sorry to hear this. They took themselves out of my consideration with their move towards vulgar and ostentatious pricing with L’Incendiaire. I shall cherish the remainder of my 50ml bottle of Muscs Koublai Khan and bell jars of Fumerie Turque and Chergui all the more. The current trend toward greedy pricing makes me appreciate Jeffrey Dame (of Dame Perfumery Scottsdale) and his philosophy of keeping things fun and affordable all the more.

    • You have some lovely ones, Rich, all of which have sadly been reformulated into a shadow of their former selves, so hold onto them tightly!

    • Welcome to the blog, Ms. Borow. May I ask what fragrance or brand was the last straw that broke your heart and made you give up blogging?

      • It wasn’t a specific one. I’d been blogging since 2008, reformulation was rampant, there were lots of new bloggers, niche prices were going up, and I didn’t think fragrance was headed anywhere very interesting, except for the small indies like DSH. And I’d said pretty much what I wanted to say anyway. But I “met” some great people and am still in touch with them .

        • Thank you for sharing a bit about the factors that led to your decision. As for the people one meets or gets to know through blogging, they are definitely a highlight for me as well.

  4. Great piece, if a little sad. I’m wondering at the price jumps so many lines seem to be pursuing. There is no valid reason, right? I’m with another commenter above which is that the higher prices are more likely to steer me away, not attract me. Most people don’t have unlimited budgets and with the vast number of choices now available, brands are competing pretty heavily already.
    I get the luxury concept..but not super expensive mediocre products.
    Happy Thanksgiving! Been so crazy busy so missed a few of your posts. My loss!!!

    • I think aspirational pricing and rendering a brand even more “upscale” or elite are the main driving forces. I talked about super-luxury pricing and the factors that go into it in a separate piece, but I agree that the products must have the quality, complexity, and distinctiveness to warrant their price tag. And that isn’t always the case. Anyway, I hope you had a good Thanksgiving, my dear. 🙂

  5. It IS sad.

    Lutens was my entry point into more interesting fragrances. I’d been wearing Hermes, Chanel and YSL and had given up on the latter two when I stumbled upon Serge Lutens. Luxury at a decent price and a line filled with beautiful and often intriguing fragrances. I didn’t like every one but I felt that any dislike I had was simply a matter of taste and not that there was anything “wrong” with the fragrance.

    I have to admit I think I lost my trust and hope after receiving a boxed sample of Laine de Verre. Ah, Uncle Serge and Monsieur Sheldrake, what has happened?!

    I admire you for soldiering on!

    • La Vierge de Fer was the turning point for me, and marked a major change in my attitude as well. I know you love La Fille de Berlin, but I wasn’t wowed. La Vierge de Fer horrified me and tipped the balance, so by the time I got to Laine de Verre a few months later… well, someone compared my reaction to having Stockholm Syndrome. LOL. The two together definitely made me see the brand in a new and negative way that some of the prior misses hadn’t. And nothing has changed that, unfortunately. 🙁

      • Oh dear. I forgot about La Vierge de Fer. Maybe blocked it out?

        I don’t think La Fille de Berlin is a particularly good scent. It just is very right for me when I am craving a certain type of rose; it smells realistic but without the sweetness that many rose soliflores have. It’s not a fragrance I’d recommend to anyone, interestingly enough. I suppose I know when something isn’t great but I just happen to like it?

        But I understand what you’re saying (I think). La Fille de Berlin isn’t the kind of “miss” that will put one off a brand. It’s not wretched. It’s just not all that interesting.

        I don’t uniformly love old SLs, either. But, I have found that every one that I haven’t liked, well, I knew it was simply my taste, not the fault of the fragrance. These new releases? Nope. Whole different story.

        Rambly enough?

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  7. I would agree that Shiseido is more guilty here than Serge Lutens, but why the hell didn’t he have a clause inserted into the contract that he had final approval over any reformulations??? Surely, he had to know this would happen.

    Is it too cynical to think that he just isn’t that interested anymore, that he’s not in complete control of his decision making abilities, or that the deal was too good to pass up regardless of the consequences? Is he as sad as you and so many others are? I hope you get the chance to ask him (or C. Sheldrake) about the changes someday.

    • I doubt Shiseido deals with the specific parameters of reformulation. That is undoubtedly left up to Christopher Sheldrake and his assistants who bring mods to Serge Lutens for approval. The thing is, fragrances are reformulated in a way where each one inches away a bit further from the last version, rather than from the original, so by the time you’ve gone through a few reformulations, the scent is quite a pale shadow of itself. Some of the Lutens fragrances have been around since the 1990s, so they’re bound to have been tweaked more than once. Others have had to be weakened a lot due to IFRA/EU regulations.

      Shiseido’s takeover in late 2015 would have nothing to do with any of that. But I’m sure it played a role in the setting of prices for the new luxury line. Perhaps they’ve even made suggestions that the new fragrances take on a more commercial, “safe” nature that would make them more sellable or approachable to the masses, but I doubt they will direct the specific composition of a perfume, demand that it smells a certain way, or dictate how an existing one should be reformulated. I think all of that is still purely Serge Lutens’ domain.

        • I think Shiseido and Serge Lutens have a different relationship than anything Estee Lauder is likely to have with Malle. Shiseido has been closely involved with Lutens for almost 40 years now. They know him well, and have trusted him to do his own thing for years since they backed and funded the start of his own brand. In contrast, Estee Lauder is just getting to know Frederic Malle, have never worked with him before, and he is one drop in their empire, an empire far larger than Shiseido’s. There isn’t the same relationship between the two, the same degree of closeness or trust.

          To me, what Shiseido is doing via the trademark takeover is essentially putting the framework in place for when Lutens retires, probably in a few years from now since he’s 73 and I don’t think his health is perfect. (For example, I read that he’s essentially lost a lot of hearing in his left ear a few years ago.) The pricing issue for the new luxury line is a different thing but, in terms of day-to-day control over the details of the creative process, I personally don’t see Shiseido having much to do with it. I think they will continue to leave it in his hands until he retires.

  8. I was crushed, absolutely crushed when I discovered De Profundis had been reformulated. I was already devastated when it happened to Chergui (which was PERFECT for me. PERFECT!) I am livid I didn’t get the chance to buy them both pre-reformulation.
    I am so sad about Lutens’ state of affairs.

    • Anne, I hope you’ll go to the Palais Royale, try some of the new ones, and tell me if any of them blow you away or feel worth the price.

      • I didn’t realize that my new bottle of Chergui wasn’t the same. I thought my taste had changed! It was perfectly nice, but it lacked something that made it great and the powderiness seemed more prominent. I’m surprised I didn’t know. I no longer even own a bottle of it, my once absolute favorite fragrance.

        • I think Chergui has become far more synthetic with amped up white musk. I also think there is more ISO E Super which can sometimes come across as “powderiness” on some skin, though I think the increased white musk also contributes to that. Finally, I think Chergui’s tobacco has been diluted and weakened as well.

          • Update: I have just received a vintage bottle of Chergui I found on ebay (with the ol’ Palais Royal logo. It’s the brown juice, not the green one). My God, it’s so good. So, so good. It’s more concentrated, and more balanced. The dry tobacco note is divine.
            Thank God there’s ebay.

  9. Vale Oncle Serge perfumes :(:(: I will never forget the delirious joy that you represented upon discovering your miraculous creations; even as a girl I was blown away by the images you created for Dior and Shiseido. I just treasure my collection of pre corporate jars and bottles. It’s sort of ironic that clearly the backing of Shiseido enabled the magnificent Palais Royale, and yet now they are dumbing his oeuvre down. It’s just market forces I guess. Perhaps he will do something on his own again, but I suppose retirement is beckoning away from the searing toil.

    • “Delirious joy” sums up the magic of first discovering his creations really well, Marion. There was almost a feeling of awe at sniffing some of them for the first time. I’m glad you have a collection of the vintage versions to keep the magic alive for a while longer.

  10. I’m going to echo Anne and Julesinrose. Serge was my entry point too. Fille de Berlin and Fille en Aiguilles were my first FB forays beyond the regular. And I was waiting and waiting to buy a FB of De Profundis until the re formulation. I couldn’t quite believe it and ordered more samples and yes. There was the musk. I am still waiting for my partner to go to Paris in January for a bell jar of Fourreau Noir. I have not heard any rumours of reformulations, and Iam holding my breath. But, like Kafka, I have not quite given up on SL, no matter what Shiseido may end up doing. He is an artist and who knows, still, what he may have to share. … It may not even be in perfumes!

    • I have recently bought a bottle of Fourreau noir, and it is as fine as ever. So unless they JUST reformulated it, I think your bell jar will be fine. I am now considering a backup. It’s a stunning perfume… Hope you’ll get your full bottle!

      I see I’m not the only one heartbroken over De Profundis. It was a work of art. Pssssss.

      Filles en aiguilles was one of my first, too!

  11. It is a bloody shame! I love the picture you chose of Oncle Serge. Now if there was just a little essential oil from that scrubby little tree in some of his perfumes we might be getting somewhere…..

    • I laughed out loud at your “scrubby little tree” comment. As for essential oils, some of the fragrances (like Cracheuse de Flammes) contain a noticeable amount of things like Otto rose but there is still no magic, imo, and the fragrances don’t feel like complex, original masterpieces that would warrant the exorbitant price tags.

  12. Dear Kafkaesque, I do know what you mean. I loved the earlier Lutens and still love them. The newer ones (anything after La Fille de Berlin) are watery, strange and just not innovative like Serge’s work always was. But since everything with M. Lutens is about the message maybe this is what he is saying he feels about the world now? That it’s become too generic and bland, perhaps? I always wonder sometimes if the newer fragrances are a joke. I expected L’Incendiare to be really in your face but beautiful like Unum Lavs, which I unexpectedly loved. Probably not a fragrance I could wear, but like Iris Silver Mist it says something and it’s crazy and beautiful at the same time. I would love just spraying it and smelling it and loving it doe its existence. Hopefully our dear Serge will return with a vengeance with his original brilliance. His new scents are watching a beloved athlete who kept playing well past his prime and ruined his own legacy with sub par showings. Muy triste. It’s very sad.

    • I’m sure each one of the new fragrances bears some sort of message, more likely about his past, his mother, and his fractured identity than the state of the world today. Unfortunately, neither one of us likes the concrete, olfactory manifestation of that message. For these new ones, the message bears neither the old Lutens magic nor feels distinctive enough to warrant their prices. They simply don’t feel so spellbindingly unique to make me yearn desperately for the fragrance and save up to buy it. But I’ll keep holding out hope that things change. Maybe next year, maybe he’ll surprise us again. :\

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  14. Kafka, I love your blog and have great respect for your nose and brain, but I am shocked to hear you equating disappointment with perfumes to watching a loved one die. If that is truly how you feel, it may be worth taking a sabbatical from fragrances, because that is unhealthy. Yes, what has happened to the Lutens line is disappointing, but it is in no way on the same level as a human being dying, and it is important to keep that perspective, no matter how beloved a hobby may be.

    • It’s a metaphor, not an equivalency to an actual human being dying, but I appreciate the kind concern behind your point and am touched by it. I mean that. Thank you. 🙂

        • No, thank you for the concern. Truly. I briefly edited that section of the post to clarify things because your reaction gave me pause. I realise I tend to be extremely intense about things I feel passionately about, but I’m not completely insane. *grin* 😉 People who know me and are used to my intensity or passionate responses to certain things would be able to put such statements fully into context and understand without questioning, but obviously the “internet” doesn’t know me and I must not forget that when writing in the heat of emotions.

          On a separate, unrelated note, your kindness meant a lot, and I hope you’ll stop lurking from time to time so that I’ll have the opportunity to get to know you and your perfume tastes better.

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