Love at first sniff. Black Gemstone is an opulently ambered, spicy, woody-incense fragrance from Stéphane Humbert Lucas that caught my attention from the very first time I tried it. Mysterious woods, black frankincense and tart lemons curds, thick velvet and sticky amber — those disparate images are only one part of the complex tale created by one of the chic-est, most polished, most intriguing orientals that I’ve tried in a while.
I’m not sure where to start in trying to summarize Black Gemstone. Should it be the well-oiled woods drizzled with honey and saffron? The way the perfume changes shape each time, or how it tantalizes you with little tendrils of notes that are never quite what they seem? Should I talk about how its darkness turns to a sensual warmth that envelops you like velvet on satin skin? Or how its surface simplicity dissolves upon closer inspection into layer upon finely calibrated layer — all like tiny detailed brushstrokes of enameled lacquer on an ornate golden heart of patchouli and amber?
I don’t know where to begin, in part because Black Gemstone feels truly mysterious on some levels — and not simply because the perfume changes on my skin from one spot to the next, or from wearing to wearing. I don’t find many fragrances to evoke a sense of mystery, let alone darkness, but, somehow, the opening of Black Gemstone does. And, as a whole, it is one of the chic-est damn things I’ve tried in ages.
Black Gemstone is a 2013 parfum extrait from Stéphane Humbert Lucas 777 (hereinafter just referred to as “SHL 777” or “777“). All the perfumes are created by Monsieur Lucas, who used to be the in-house perfumer for SoOud and Nez à Nez. Up to now, the 777 line was exclusive to Europe, Russia, and Middle Eastern, but there is excellent news.
The complete SHL 777 line should be coming to America in a few days, including the stunning amber monster, O Hira, that was previously contractually limited to Harrods and to Printemps, and the 2013 iris-amber-heliotrope Khol de Bahrein. The new 2014 releases should also be available, such as the highly original cherry-latex-almond-cedar-oud Qom Chilom, the immortelle gourmand Une Nuit à Doha, and the Cambodian oud, smoke and leather, Oud 777. The scents will be exclusive to Luckyscent and Osswald NYC. I have samples of the line, thanks to the generosity and kindness of Monsieur Lucas, and Black Gemstone is the second to last in my series. (I’m only missing Rose de Petra, so Soleil de Jeddah will be the last.)
Black Gemstone is a pure parfum that is described in the press materials provided to me as follows:
Tribute to the Black Stone
Brewed essence, tender as clay,
Infusion of three Cedars – Lemon
Incense [Olibanum] – Teak – Tonka.
As with other SHL 777 fragrances, the official list seems to be merely a nutshell synopsis. I detected far more emanating from my skin, from honey and labdanum amber, to sweet myrrh/opoponax and woody-leathered undertones. So I sent off yet another pestering email to poor Monsieur Lucas to ask what else was actually included in Black Gemstone. I’m always grateful for his time, patience, and forthright openness, but I was especially relieved this time because, by the time I got his reply, I was pretty sure I was wafting eucalyptus, saffron and patchouli as well. You don’t know how crazy you start to feel when you smell things a galaxy away from what’s on an official note list. (I mean, eucalyptus, for heaven’s sake!)
The actual note list for Black Gemstone turns out to be:
Italian lemon, 3 types of cedar, frankincense (olibanum), myrrh, sweet myrrh (opoponax), patchouli, cistus labdanum amber, teak wood, birch wood, saffron, basil, a camphor accord (eucalyptus and rosemary), and tonka.
Black Gemstone opens on my skin with beautiful honey and deep, concentrated tart lemon over dark, smoky woods. There is a noticeable leather undertone and a strongly balsamic base, along with almost a black tea-like smokiness, all of which are lovely. The woods are dark and blackened, but not singed or burnt. Rather, they’re sweetened and musky, then drenched with an incredibly real lemon note.
The latter was the star of the opening act on my skin in quite a few tests that I did. It has the perfect balance of a tart, tangy Meyer’s lemon, a type of lemon that does not have strong acidity. This is no crisp, zesty, or chilled citric note. It’s also far from thin. Instead, there is a very heavy, sun-ripened juiciness that has been concentrated into something almost akin to unsugared lemon curd in its beautiful, tart depths. I cannot get over the lemon note in Black Gemstone, really I can’t. And I’m not one who ever gushes about citruses in fragrances.
I think one reason why there is such a full-bodied richness and fruited heaviness is that the lemon has been subtly amplified by patchouli. It’s the syrupy, fruited patchouli that I normally loathe so much, but it’s managed with incredible finesse here. Never gooey or overly sweet, and only occasionally like jammy, purple molasses, the patchouli here has been refined to add just a touch of concentrated richness to the lemon without ever detracting from the citric focus. The result would almost feel photo-realistic, except this lemon has been shot through with walloping amounts of black smoke in a way that I haven’t previously encountered.
That smoke is definitely the second star of Black Gemstone’s opening on my skin. The frankincense is beautiful and perfectly balanced, never too muffled but also never really overpowering or aggressive. Strong tendrils seep out to weave and wrap themselves around you, leaving trails in the air behind you as you move. The smoke is sometimes sharp in its intensity, but, yet, oddly soft and delicate at the same time. There is no grey dustiness or chilliness here; this smoke is warm from the honey and lemons.
While the lemon and frankincense waltz on center stage, other elements quietly weave in and out. The note list says myrrh “tar,” and it does feel a little like a blackened accord, thanks to the copious amounts of a sticky balsamic resin that turns the smoke slightly sweet. There is also an occasional touch of opoponax or sweet myrrh that adds a nutty warmth, but it is very fleeting. Much more noticeable is the resinous base. The labdanum doesn’t smell ambered or golden at this point, but reflects instead a darkness that impacts all the other notes. At times, it has a subtle tobacco tonality, but, most of the time, it merely adds a feeling of something leathery and thick.
From afar, Black Gemstone is a beautiful mix of smoky lemony and incense, drizzled with honey and cocooned amidst musky woods, all atop a very balsamic, leathery base. Up close, the mix is absolutely addictive, constantly drawing me in with its richness. It mesmerizes the analytical part of my mind, often because the notes are fused so thoroughly together that it’s hard to know where one starts and the other ends.
In fact, it’s extremely hard to tease out many of the notes in Black Gemstone because it’s a beautifully blended fragrance. I found it almost impossible to know the source for many of the things that I detected. Not only do the individual elements flow seamlessly one to the next, but so many of them complement and share common characteristics. Does the honey derive from the labdanum or the sweet myrrh? Is the subtle tobacco-like tonality that dances at the edges a result of the patchouli, the labdanum, or something else? Same question for the leather undertone. I have no answers at all.
The perfume is so incredibly blended that it never actually opened the exact same way twice on my skin on any of the 3 occasions when I wore it. On my usual testing arm, Black Gemstone always opened with a bouquet dominated by incense and some fluctuating level of lemon curd, but that was the only consistent aspect because all the other notes varied. On one occasion, the main duo was heavily dusted by spicy saffron from the very start, then trailed by honey and a jammy, fruited, almost raspberry-ish patchouli over a soft base of warm amber.
Another time, Black Gemstone’s opening was drier, woodier, and much smokier. This time, the incense-lemon accord was cocooned in musky cedar with a touch of creamy beeswax from the sweet myrrh. The frankincense felt even stronger than usual, and the cedar was much more prominent than on any prior occasion. In contrast, the amber and the saffron were weaker, taking much longer to rise up from the base. The jammy patchouli was also less evident, but the woodier, red-brown, spicy patchouli flickered in and out from the start.
However, on my non-testing arm, it was a different story entirely. Black Gemstone opened with patchouli, saffron, camphor, lemon curd, musky woods, cedar, amber, tobacco tonalities and incense. The patchouli and saffron combination far outweighed the frankincense lemon curd. The perfume felt sweeter and richer, with more overt spices and a flickering touch of eucalyptus camphor right from the start. To my surprise, the patchouli felt simultaneously like the fruited, jammy kind and the more traditional, usual patchouli that I love with its red-brown spiciness, tobacco woodiness, and a touch of mentholated green. I can’t remember the last time I encountered a perfume where both versions of patchouli were present side-by-side at the same time. All I can say is that there is serious skill and technical wizardry involved in all of this.
In short, Black Gemstone is what I call a “prismatic” scent. It throws off different facets each time you wear it, the way light hitting a crystal chandelier will reflect different rays of colours. Prismatic scents can often seem linear in nature, because the seamless blending of notes reveals the different nuances very subtly. I believe Luca Turin calls these sorts of fragrances “circular” because the notes often come around hours later again in a full circle, and that happens here with Black Gemstone, as well. It makes it hard for me to give you the usual breakdown or analysis, especially once the perfume transitions into its second stage, because there is never one set story.
Still, I’ll try to describe what happens in one of the tests, the one with which I began this review. After 15 minutes, Black Gemstone starts to shift, particularly in terms of the wooded accord. It grows far stronger, and feels simultaneously dry but creamy. Initially, it doesn’t smell of cedar at all. It’s not peppered or dusty the way some cedar can be. Nor does it smell of pencil shavings.
Instead, the wood is turning beautifully creamy in a way that feels very unusual for cedar. Perhaps it is from the sweet myrrh, which can often reflect a creamy beeswax tonality. Or, perhaps it is the teak which is responsible? I must confess, I have no idea what teak smells like, and Fragrantica only says it is a “fantasy note” that is polished, light and “blond.” I don’t know what that means. All I can say is that the wood here in Black Gemstone feels infused with frankincense, myrrh, the concentrated lemon curd, and that mysterious creaminess. Even better, there is a distinct earthiness and muskiness to it, though it is very hard to describe or explain.
The whole thing feels heavily oiled, smoky, sweet, darkened, and smooth. The honey that was drizzled all over fades after 20 minutes as a distinct, individual note, though a definite sweetness remains. Everything about Black Gemstone feels concentrated and rich, evoking the brightest yellow shot through with endless smoke and blackness. It is a ball of brightness in a dark forest where all the trees have been oiled to a smooth, polished finish. None of it smells like furniture polish, by the way. It’s more like a photo-realistic, tart lemon concentrate, reduced down to a thick treacle, then shot through with incense and dry, earthy, musky woods.
Black Gemstone continues to shift and evolve. About 30 minutes in, the cedar finally begins to smell more like its usual self. The first hints of saffron appear, but this isn’t the usual sort of saffron either. It’s not fiery, dusty, buttered, or even particularly spicy at first. Instead, it’s more like a woody saffron that has been refined to add mere warmth. Sometimes, it feels more like a subset of the labdanum, or a figment of my imagination. Yet, in other tests, the spice was noticeable from the start and smelled more like actual saffron.
I’m struggling to explain all this, and I know I’m being somewhat unclear, but I find Black Gemstone extremely hard to describe. There are two reasons why. First, on my skin, many of the notes in the perfume are quite subtle at times. Second, they’ve been highly refined to the point that they don’t always smell the way that I’m used to. Monsieur Lucas told me in one of his emails that he worked extremely hard with the quantities, to add just “tiny doses” and ensure that the many elements were all calibrated against each other. Yet, he also used extremely expensive, high-quality ingredients whose normally bold nature has been smoothed out. The overall effect of both things is to create notes that are simultaneously very refined and quite elusive at times, leading you to wonder just what you’re sniffing. On other occasions, however, the exact same note was less mysterious, like the time that the eucalyptus was evident from the start instead of being such a tantalizing whisper in the background.
Roughly 90 minutes into Black Gemstone’s development, the second stage arrives and it is essentially the same each time, in all my versions. The details and small nuances may vary from one test to another, but the broad brushstrokes are generally consistent. For the most part, Black Gemstone transitions into a markedly different perfume from that which appeared at the start.
Now, Black Gemstone is not dominated by tart, concentrated lemon curd with incense, but by more golden elements led first by the amber and incense, then, hours later, by patchouli-amber. As the lemon slowly softens and fades away, the labdanum rises from the base, the incense turns up another notch, the myrrh becomes stronger, and the brown patchouli finally wakes up in the base. Saffron is sprinkled over everything, while little hints of beeswax dart about. The musky woods feel more amorphous than cedar-y, and seem creamier than ever. As a whole, Black Gemstone feels deeper, softer, and richer, though the sillage lessens a little. The visuals of yellow with black have changed to amber, gold, bronze, brown and cream.
Black Gemstone’s greatest characteristic for me at this point would be ambered velvet. If textures could be actual notes, then “velvet” should be part of the perfume’s pyramid, because it feels as much a part of Black Gemstone’s identity as the tendrils of black incense or the earthy, musky woods. There is a smooth richness to the scent that is wonderfully luxurious and feels almost like thickened, creamy brocade. Monsieur Lucas attributes a lot of it to the tonka, but I’m used to tonka that is either powdery, purely vanillic, creamy vanilla, or some combination of both. I’ve never experienced tonka as creamy velvet amber.
It all feels very elegant, polished, and chic, but there is also something soothing and serene about Black Gemstone. It’s as though you’re in a palatial room padded with thick velvet that drowns out all the frenetic noise around you. You lie on a bed made out of cedar and patchouli, on sheets of honeyed, fragrant beeswax, under a thick blanket of dark velvet shot through with ambered gold and saffron, as clouds of black incense circulate in the air all around you. It’s meditative, zen, and comforting all at once.
Black Gemstone continues to shift, but only by tiny, incremental degrees. The lemon fades away entirely at the 2.5 hour mark. An hour later, the cedar retreats to the background, and the woods turn more abstract. The tonka starts to stir more noticeably in the base, adding the faintest touch of powder to the scent and even more of the creaminess mentioned above. The myrrh and sweet myrrh work in tandem with the frankincense, adding more smoke to the scent, but the sharpness is offset by the surging tides of amber that roll over everything. Meanwhile, the brown-red patchouli grows stronger. I’m a complete “patch head,” so I’m over the moon at its prominence and spicy richness. Occasional touches of camphor and eucalyptus dart about, but the patchouli is primarily one more layer of golden warmth.
At the end of 9 hours, Black Gemstone is a blend of sweet, spicy, nutty, vaguely honeyed, woody notes, lightly flecked with incense in a thick cocoon of velvet amber. The primary bouquet is centered on patchouli-amber, trailed by the incense. The patchouli occasionally has a powerful streak of eucalyptus. Sometime, there is a subtle booziness as well. Saffron, tonka and an amorphous, warm woodiness dart about in the background, adding to the richness of the scent. There is no real powder, no vanilla, just layer upon layer of goldenness upon a deep base that feels like the darkest resins have turned to satin.
At the start of the 12th hour, Black Gemstone is a warm blur of patchouli amber. If you smell up close and really focus, you can just barely single out the tonka, saffron, cedar, and eucalyptus, but they’re increasingly minor and muted. In its final moments, Black Gemstone is merely a silky whisper of golden warmth with a vaguely woody character.
All in all, Black Gemstone consistently lasted well over 14 hours on my perfume consuming skin. With 2 decent spritzes from my atomizer, amounting to one very good spray from an actual bottle, the perfume lasted just under 15 hours. Really, about 14.75. The sillage was initially large, hovering about 4 inches above the skin. That number dropped after 90 minutes to about 2 inches above the skin, then one inch at the 3.75 hour mark. There, Black Gemstone remained for ages, turning into a skin scent only at the end of the 8th hour.
The numbers were even better with 3 big spritzes, amounting to 2 sprays from a proper bottle. The longevity was just short of 17 hours. Black Gemstone initially wafted about 5 inches off my skin, but it left a definite trail behind me. On one occasion, I had dinner with my parents about an hour after applying Black Gemstone, and was told that they could smell the fragrance in two rooms that I had been either standing in or walking through. In all cases, however, and regardless of amount, Black Gemstone’s sillage averages out to about 2 inches above the skin when you consider the 14 to 16 hours as a whole.
As a point of comparison, that’s pretty much how most Profumum Roma scents are on my skin as well. In fact, Black Gemstone actually feels a lot like a Profumum scent with its heavy, concentrated nature and great longevity. Both brands put out fragrances that are extraits or pure parfums in concentration, so it’s not really a surprise. In the case of Black Gemstone, it has 24% concentration, just like its other siblings in the SHL 777 line.
On a personal level, I have to say that this has been one of the most difficult reviews I’ve written in a while. Despite the hundreds of words that I’ve written, I can’t shake the feeling that I haven’t actually described the perfume at all. I can summarize it up in a nutshell as a lemon-incense fragrance with dry woods that later turns into incense-patchouli-amber, but that doesn’t seem to convey the full extent of Black Gemstone’s complexity on my skin or its feel. Emphasizing the smoky incense and woodiness would be misleading, just as it would be if I focused on the golden warmth which later appears.
All of these things are just one piece of the puzzle, a puzzle that seems extremely simple on the outside. In fact, some of you may sniff Black Gemstone and wonder what on earth I’m talking about, because the details are often like tiny brushstrokes. For me, Black Gemstone feels like one of the paintings from the famous Pointillist painter, George Seurat, where you have to look extremely close in order to see that the seemingly simple image is actually created from thousands of tiny dots.
In the same way that my words feel inadequate, so is the imagery. I generally try to use photos as a symbolic, visual representations, and, yet, none of them seem to really capture the full picture. They certainly don’t convey some of the impressions in my head for how the perfume feels to me, or the men and women who represent its different facets. So, I’m giving in to frustration and going to subject you to a visual display that may explain some of it.
Symbolically, Black Gemstone sometimes translates in my head from this:
But also this:
At the same time, however, Black Gemstone can also feel like this:
leading to this:
before ending up as this:
And all of this is worn by him:
At least, that is how Black Gemstone appears in my head. I wish I could tell you how others see it, but I could not find any comparative reviews to show you. On Fragrantica, Black Gemstone’s entry page has no comments at this time. In fact, until yesterday, the perfume was not widely available outside of Harrods and Paris’ Printemps. Germany’s First in Fragrance just received Black Gemstone, along with the new 2014 releases. As noted at the start of this post, the complete SHL 777 line will be released in the U.S. at the start of May.
In Europe, Black Gemstone’s retail price is €235 for a 50 ml bottle of pure parfum. I don’t have the official American pricing rate, but, at today’s rate of exchange, that comes to roughly $325. However, I know from prior experiences with European exclusives that the eventual U.S. price is always much less than the conversion amount. So, I estimate the perfume will probably be in the $290 range, though that is purely a personal guess.
For me, Black Gemstone is worth every penny, and it is high on my wish list right next to the magnificent O Hira, the Incredible Hulk of ambers. The latter is far too expensive to be anything more than a dream for me, but Black Gemstone will be mine. The quality, luxuriousness, projection, and sillage are all there, but more importantly, the perfume moves me. As all these photos should demonstrate, it tells me lots of very different stories throughout its long tenure. It took me places, was intellectually interesting, and had multi-layered complexity that showed great technical skill by the perfumer. So much complexity, in fact, that Black Gemstone was often several perfumes in one on my skin.
Even within the same journey, I found Black Gemstone to be contemplative and meditative, but also darkly sultry and sexy, before ending up as comforting, relaxing warmth. I found all of it addictive, from start to finish, and compulsively sniffable. Is it the most objectively unique and original fragrance? No, because at the end of the day, it is still an incense-woody-amber scent. (In contrast, SHL 777’s new Qom Chilom is definitely unique with its notes of sour Morello cherries, black latex, smoke, almonds, oud, heliotrope, and more.) Still, Black Gemstone feels more approachable to me, and I love how polished it feels. Amber orientals aren’t a category that I would usually classify as “chic,” but Black Gemstone is definitely chic to me.
In short, if you’re looking for a very complex but elegant oriental fragrance, I strongly recommend that you give Black Gemstone a sniff. It’s a black beauty with a rich golden heart.
Disclosure: Perfume sample courtesy of Stéphane Humbert Lucas. That did not influence this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.