Bapteme du Feu, the latest release from Serge Lutens, is not a scent that lends itself to easy characterisation. What I can say is that it’s different, puts a sometimes bizarre twist on traditional fragrance categories or genres, and that the old Lutens eccentricity and creative twists are back. Wearing it left me flummoxed at times, highly ambivalent at other times, but at least it feels like a Lutens, for better or for worse.
Bapteme du Feu (“Baptism of Fire”) is an eau de parfum that was created by Serge Lutens with his usual collaborator, Christopher Sheldrake. The liquid is a dusty mauve-pink in colour, while the bottle bears the black label signaling it is part of the Haute Concentration Collection (like Fille en Aiguilles, Serge Noire, and L’Orpheline). Those are meant to be the richer, stronger, and more concentrated compositions, and therefore bear a slightly elevated price from the rest of the export line (which has a white label). Bapteme du Feu was released in France in early July, and will probably come to England and America sometime in late August to early September. At the time of this review, it’s listed on the American Lutens website, but there is a “temporarily unavailable” notice.
Bapteme du Feu is ostensibly a gingerbread eau de parfum, but Lutens is not treading in the steps of his old Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre because this one has a gunpowder note. That impression is supported not just by the scent of Bapteme du Feu, but also by the gun range bulls-eye in one of the fragrance’s ads and, apparently, by a short video showing Serge Lutens with a rifle. According to the blogger, Mimi Frou Frou:
Gingerbread and gunpowder are linked in this new scent. The creator appears in a very short film holding a rifle – Niki de Saint Phalle like – and talks about biting into heart-shaped gingerbread cakes. The scene is a lugubrious funfair shot in black and white, emptied of its potential customers, the continuum in space of a forest from which Lutens emerges.
She speculates that Serge Lutens is trying to make a statement on the modern world and incidents of gun violence, but she doesn’t provide a link to the video, I can’t find it on YouTube to determine what meaning there may be in it, and I honestly don’t care. More than anything, I want to avoid the toxic minefield of political discussions on this site, especially with Americans sensitive to gun control or Second Amendment issues, so please just take “gunpowder” as the key point in all this and let’s move on.
Serge Lutens doesn’t officially mention gunpowder as a part of Bapteme du Feu’s notes, only gingerbread. His cursory description for the scent is nothing more than: “My emotions are fluid. Like liquid wax poured into a mould, they determine what seduces me—like this gingerbread heart.” So, we have to partake in the usual guessing game as to what’s in the scent. Fragrantica lists:
gingerbread, powdery notes, tangerine, castoreum, osmanthus and woody notes.
Christos of Memory of Scent believes that Fragrantica has mistranslated gun powder as “powdery notes,” and I agree. His guess for the list is:
Gunpowder, Gingerbread, Fresh ginger, Cedar, Incense, Floral notes.
Based purely on my what showed up on my skin, my guess for the note list is something more like this:
Gunpowder/Gun Metal accord (Ambroxan plus other things), Bitter Orange/Bigarade, Ginger, Osmanthus, Ylang-Ylang, Cedar, Woody-Amber Aromachemical, Benzoin, Tonka, Musk, Possibly Ambrette, Possibly Lime, Possibly Neroli, and Possibly Celery.
Bapteme du Feu opens on my skin with a tart, immensely bitter, and green mandarin orange that feels infused with very woody petitgrain, a drop of lime, and possibly some neroli as well. Leafy greenness sprouts all around, and quickly coalesces into the aroma of raw celery leaf. The effect resembles Serge Lutens’ bell jar exclusive, Mandarine Mandarin, except here the orange is significantly more bitter, woody, sour, and green, while the celery is fresher, milder, weaker, and less overt. Hanging like a thick veil over the notes is a dry spiciness that smells like ginger in highly abstract form. It’s nothing like gingerbread on my skin, but it’s not purely fresh, raw, or spicy either. Instead, it’s more peppery, almost as if it had been infused with red chili peppers.
I think that’s due to the Ambroxan that I’m convinced is in the fragrance, running thickly, heavily, and noticeably through Bapteme du Feu’s base. There is the exact same spiced pimento fieriness, sharp dryness, golden muskiness, and quasi woodiness here that I experienced with the Ambrox-spice accord in Aedes‘ Palissandre d’Or. In that review, I spent some time explaining what Ambrox is, its characteristics, the fragrances it’s in (Dior‘s Savauge, Prada Luna Rossi, D&G’s Light Blue for Men, etc.), and people’s immensely polarized responses to it, so feel free to read it for a fuller explanation, but the basic point that you need to understand for our purposes here is that, in my opinion, the “gunpowder” accord in Bapteme du Feu is derived primarily from Ambroxan.
Here, it wafts bone-dry, peppered, musky warmth that has a bizarre hotness to it, a hotness that goes beyond the red pepper spiciness it wafted in Palissandre d’Or. This feels like heated, burning metal with a smoky quality that continuously evokes the image of two electrical wires fused together to emit a smoky jolt. Something about it also evokes hot needles in fire, perhaps because that’s the sensation that goes up my nose when I smell Bapteme du Feu up close for too long.
The amorphous, almost intangible vaporous smoke not only smells like burning metal, harsh faux “incense,” and an electrical jolt but, even more than that, it bears a surprising tactile texture. One of the things that makes Ambroxan so loved by its fans is how it simultaneously feels like a tactile skin-like velvetiness and an abstract, ineffable, golden aura that is part of you. One of the things its haters repeatedly mention is its “nose-burning” or “needle sharp” physical effect. In Bapteme du Feu, the “skin”-feel isn’t evident, but its abstract/concrete dichotomy and its more negative attributes definitely are. The effect here is scratchy, metallic, hot, sharp, and frequently more textual than a concrete odor. It burns the inside of my nose before traveling to the back of my throat where the vapours remain like a grating, metallic, incense smoke bubble. Unfortunately for me, this tactile sensation and harshness remains for all of Bapteme du Feu’s lifetime on my skin, resulting in growing levels of physical discomfort (headache, painfully irritated throat) from the 5th hour onwards.
I think other elements may have been added in the base as well. For the first 30 minutes, there is a strange watery coolness lurking next to the Ambroxan, though it’s not precisely “aquatic” in the way that that word is typically used in perfumery. It’s not like calone, but it is a sort of watery abstraction that is occasionally floral at times, and vegetal at other times.
It’s difficult to describe, but then I think most of Bapteme du Feu’s opening and first hour is hard to quantify or pin down. Except for the gunpowder, heated gun-metal, and their various nuances, everything floats in a way that feels more like Jean-Claude Ellena’s white-washed blurred abstractions than a Sheldrake painting rendered in substantive, definitive, and clear brush strokes with rich, solid oils.
The result is a scent that doesn’t lend itself well to my typical breakdown and analysis. There are only generalities for much of Bapteme du Feu’s first hour or two, because the notes resemble shapeless drifting clouds that defy easy scent categorisation as any one set, particular thing. For example, the cloud of musky goldenness emanating from the Ambroxan (with ambrette?) quickly rises to the surface after 40 minutes, wafting a sharpness that is occasionally semi-animalic, but not quite. It’s a sort of golden, heated “buzziness” more than anything else. The other notes are, as I’ve tried to describe, even more sensory than olfactory in character: heat; heated metal; heated electric smoke; heated fiery spiciness; and intense citric bitterness. The latter is what the “mandarin” turns into after 20 minutes on my skin, which is also when the initial, opening greenness and minor whiffs of celery disappear as well.
Bapteme du Feu may not lend itself well to an easy breakdown, but there are a few general trends that occurred both times that I tested the fragrance. The first 30 minutes or so are dominated by the bitter/tart citrus, hot pepper and ginger-ish spiciness, and hot gun metal accords. During the next half hour, thin clouds of floralcy begin to drift by, blurring things even further, like a whitewashed floral veneer painted in thin watercolors over the landscape.
Those abstract floral cumulus clouds take over at the start of the 2nd hour, blocking the citruses from the sun and from then wiping them out entirely. The Ambroxan smoke, heat, fused wires, electricity, fiery spiciness, muskiness, and god knows what else all emerge from the base at the same time, melding fully with the floralcy. Taking its place in the base is an amorphous woodiness that feels nebulously cedar-ish. That eventually emerges from the base as well, about an hour later. It’s only at that point that the florals finally begin to take shape, smelling of lightly powdered, somewhat impressionistic osmanthus mixed with small amounts of spicy, slightly vanillic, sweet ylang-ylang.
The result midway during the third hour is a dry, spiced, floral, woody golden musk comprised in equal parts of Ambroxan, ginger-ish spiciness, osmanthus-ylang florals, gunpowder smoke, heated metal “incense,” woodiness, and synthetic woody-amber muskiness. It’s actually rather nice when smelt from afar. There, what wafts on the scent is primarily a lightly sweetened, spicy, golden floralcy that is dominated largely by ylang ylang. It is only up close that one detects the other notes layered within.
Bapteme du Feu’s next stage typically begins towards the end of the 6th hour, and consists of a realignment of the notes to emphasize the woody accord over the florals. In essence, the flowers slip away, alternating between the sidelines or edges of the scent, and the distant background. One hour, the ylang seems to disappear, replaced purely by a powdery osmanthus note that drifts back and forth; the next minute, it’s all ylang, and nothing else. One moment, the floralcy is a merely an elusive, generalised flicker in the background while the spiced woods and woody-aromachemical accord pulsate in the foreground; the next moment, the floralcy is as noticeable and evident as it had been before. The only thing that seems clear to me is that the accords seem to take turns in the spotlight, and whichever one is in second place turns into a drifting cumulus cloud that is hard to pin down.
That said, there is no doubt that Bapteme du Feu enters a distinctly woody phase late in the 6th hour. The bouquet is basically an extremely desiccated, parched, masculine, spiced, smoky woody-amber aromachemical haze. It’s dry, dry, dry, dry. It’s so dry and harsh, it feels like a Brillo pad has gone up my nose and down my throat. The Ambrox actually isn’t the real problem for me so much as the growling woody note that has the harshness, wood smoke, and faux “incense” feel of a power aromachemical. When combined with the Ambroxan, the cumulative effect feels like a burning hot needle and a sensory thing more than a fiery, woody, and ambered aroma.
Thankfully, it doesn’t last because the floral nimbus clouds eventually float back into sight during the drydown phase, and the notes gradually begin realign once again. The floral elements begin to seep back about 8 hours in, moving slowly, fluctuating in strength, first licking the edges of the woody accord, then eventually washing over it completely by the end of the 9th hour. What’s odd is that, during the transitional phase, the scent that lingers in the air and from a distance is primarily floral in nature and dominated by a lightly powdered, semi-vanillic, spicy ylang-ylang. Up close, the Ambrox is still pulsating away, harsh and raspy, hot and scratchy, wrapped up with tendrils of wood smoke. But when I move my arms, the tendrils of spicy, sweet, golden, almost ambered ylang that drift by are actually extremely nice. The other interesting thing is that Bapteme du Feu has suddenly veered from a strongly masculine scent into a more feminine one, from a painfully dry bouquet into a gentler, milder, semi-dry, semi-sweet one.
By the start of the 10th hour, Bapteme du Feu is completely floral in nature, led by the ylang and subtly supported by a tonka powderiness. There is almost a benzoin-ish quality to the goldenness instead of a purely Ambroxan one. Yet, the latter is still evident in a sort of golden tactile quality and subtle muskiness that floats about the background. In its final hours, all that’s left is soft, spiced, quietly sweetened, occasionally musky goldenness.
Bapteme du Feu had very good longevity, good sillage, but generally low projection. Using several generous smears equal to 2 good sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opened with 3 inches of projection, and 6-7 inches of projection, probably because my skin extends the reach of any scent with strong aromachemicals like Ambroxan. The numbers for both categories dropped about an inch each after an hour. About 3.25 hours in, the projection was about 0.5 to 1 inch, at best, while the sillage was around 3. The fragrance became a skin scent about 5.75 hours, although it was still easy to detect up close and without major effort for a few hours to come. Things became harder at the end of the 9th hour when I thought Bapteme du Feu was close to dying. About 11.5 hours in, I was certain I’d reached the end. However, as I’ve noted before, my skin has a tendency to retain fragrances with large quantities of strong aromachemicals for much longer than other people, and Bapteme du Feu is one of the Haute Concentration line, so I wasn’t completely surprised when it ended up lasting more than 16.5 hours. One tiny, dime-sized patch actually continued to waft a spiced sweetness into the 18th hour. However, in terms of a concrete, visible or easily detected presence, 10-11 hours is about it.
One thing that I noticed during the first 5 hours is that Bapteme du Feu does not do well in the heat and humidity. The scent seemed to flatten, literally, whenever I went outside, dissolving into a sheer, thin, barely noticeable aroma that coated my skin like a wisp, as if it had practically evaporated in body. Yet, it would puff back up and reconstitute itself once I stepped back inside my air-conditioned house. It was bizarre to observe how the scent bubble was squashed down by the weight of the hot air and humidity, basically turning into a sliver like the thinnest pancake before mushrooming back up after just a few minutes in my (admittedly very cold) air-conditioning. Please keep that in mind if you test Bapteme du Feu under similar conditions.
Bapteme du Feu is too new for a ton of reviews, but there are a few out there already. On Fragrantica, there are two comments at this time, both positive. I’ll let you read them for yourself later if you’re interested because I want to get to the blog review by Christos of Memory of Scent. Our experiences were extremely similar. For him, Bapteme du Feu opened primarily with a brief gingerbread note that rapidly segued into a lemony and fresh ginger that was layered with a “cold, metallic, abrasive” gunpowder note that is “more of a texture than an actual ingredient.” I have no doubt whatsoever that it is the Ambroxan he’s describing. For him, as for me, the textural, “abrasive” gunpowder note remained to the end, ensuring that Bapteme du Feu never skewed into gourmand territory. After the opening citrus-ginger phase, the rests of Bapteme du Feu’s phases followed a progression similar to what I experienced:
woods become more prominent, a cedar-but-not-quite note that blends in with the spices and initiates a latter floral phase in the development. This floral phase is vague and not feminine. […] By the drydown, all the gingerbread is eaten up and you are left with a very nice base of piquant woodiness, delicate incense and vague warm florality. But the imprint of the coarse, metallic, gunpowder texture is always there.
For Persolaise, Bapteme du Feu was a quiet fragrance like many of the recent releases, but with a “hotbed of emotion” underneath, “keeping itself in check beneath the inscrutable facade.” He adds:
This contrast manifests itself as a jammy, rosy and very convincingly gingery exterior placed over a layer of dry spices (mainly fenugreek, to my nose) and leather. The drydown may be a touch too creamy and faint, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay for what comes before: a compelling statement on white-knuckled restraint, a la Phillip Glass on piano, full of intriguing shifts and subtleties. Thumbs up.
My feelings about Bapteme du Feu are mixed. All over the place, in fact. I realise it takes great talent and technical mastery to achieve the various sensations and effects on display here, but this is not a style of perfumery which moves me. I am also not one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s legion of fans. The furthest thing from it in fact. I cannot stand impressionistic abstractions in perfumery; I dislike poor (to nonexistent) note delineation; and I find blurry, indeterminate olfactory hazes are too obscure in character to fill me with an immediate, visceral, gut-level, emotive response, let alone an euphoria of passion. And let’s not get started on aromachemicals that smell abrasive, even to someone like Christos who does not have my sensitivity or physical responses.
Bapteme du Feu ticks off all my issues, and, yet, I actually respect it. To be clear, I don’t like it — and I would run a mile before ever wearing it for myself — but one can’t deny that it’s different and even quite interesting at times. First, it has that immensely quirky bizarreness, eccentricity, and imaginative creativeness that characterized so many past Lutens fragrances, as well as his tendency to mix strange, unconventional elements together. (See e.g., Iris Silver Mist, Mandarine Mandarin, Un Voix Noire, or even La Myrrhe to some extent.) The Lutens orientalism may be nowhere in sight, but at least his “out there” eccentricity is back. I can honestly say that I’ve never smelt anything exactly like Bapteme du Feu before, and that the first 20 minutes left me completely flummoxed with the oddity of the various nuances of the gunpowder/gun-metal accord. So, there is that, at least. It’s different.
I don’t know what else I can really say about the fragrance because thinking about its specifics is like an attempt to find shapes in one of Turner’s cloud-and-light paintings. If you love Ambroxan and spiced, floral woody musks or spiced floral woody orientals, you may enjoy Bapteme du Feu. It has unisex, masculine, and feminine stages. Depending on your gender, you may find one of those stages outside of your normal style or tastes. At the end of the day, if you’re a hardcore Lutens fan, Bapteme du Feu is worth testing for yourself.