“Snow” is a word that comes up quite a bit in Serge Lutens‘ descriptions for La Religieuse, his latest release that debuted in Paris at the start of February and one that is officially characterized as a jasmine fragrance. I think the word “snow” is absolutely accurate in describing the opening of the scent with its icy and “crystalline” aesthetic, but La Religieuse was hardly the jasmine soliflore that I expected. It was nothing like A La Nuit, Sarrasins, or any other jasmine soliflore that I’ve tried for that matter. Frankly, if I smelt it blindly, the word “jasmine” would be at the very end of my list of descriptors. Instead, the name “De Profundis” would come up within minutes, which might make some of you very happy indeed.
As the sun’s first, golden tendrils crossed the horizon, the flowers started to come to life. With a nod and a jerk, the chrysanthemum slowly unfurled its tight bud, quivering in the slow warmth that turned the blue-black sky into shades of purple and pink. Droplets of dew flew across the field as it straightened its sleepily curved, bright, green body. The droplets landed on the freshly tilled soil below the flowers, turning its earthiness moist and fresh, loamy and sweet.
The pink-gold light continued to spread across the purple, morning sky, triggering a chain reaction in the fields below. The dahlia rose leaned over to poke the white lilies who tapped the peonies who gave an awakening jolt to the slumbering violets who gave a kick to the white chamomile who came to with an indignant shake. In a chain reaction, the flowers opened their tight buds, issuing forth a tidal wave of sweet, dewy, delicate florals, mixed with the brightness of spring green notes and a light hint of earth.
They carried hints of the woodiness of the slumbering trees encompassing the meadow, the dryness of the bales of hay at the edges, and the smoke rising from the shepherd’s cottage in the distance. As the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, the notes rose in strength, becoming less dewy, fragile and fresh; turning more potent; and carrying a little hint of soap. All too soon, it was late afternoon and the woody floral scent awoke the tall trees whose mighty trunks shook with a quiet murmur as they came to life. The trees were creamy and white, as soft as taupe suede in their touch. When the sun started to set over the Spring meadow, they extended their branches protectively over the fading, sleepy flowers and took over the night shift. It was their turn to stand guard.
Sunrise to sunset in a Spring field of flowers, touched by creamy woods — that was my experience with De Profundis, a 2011 creation of Serge Lutens and his favorite cohort in olfactory adventures, Christopher Sheldrake. It’s a lovely fragrance — matched by an even lovelier purple juice in the bottle — and one which is quite ethereal at times. De Profundis is described as a chrysanthemum soliflore — a scent devoted primarily to one single flower — but it is much more than that in my opinion, and far more than the mere “chrysanthemum and incense” summation provided on the Lutens website. I’ll leave the rest of the Lutens description for now, because I truly don’t think the back story for the fragrance really applies to De Profundis and it may, in fact, be a little misleading as to what scent you should expect.
Serge Lutens rarely provides a list of notes, so it’s a little bit of a guessing game as to what De Profundis contains. Compiling the elements from Fragrantica and the Perfume Shrine, the list would seem to be:
chrysanthemum, dahlia, lily, violet, earthy notes.
chrysanthemum, gladiolus, dahlia, chamomile, peony, woods, hay, violets, incense and candied fruit.
Judging by my own experiences, I would say the list of De Profundis’ notes may be closer to this:
chrysanthemum, dahlia, violets, lilies, peony, chamomile, hay, incense, woods, green notes, ISO E Super, and earthy notes.
The real key is chrysanthemum, a flower which has a dry, woody, sometimes hay-like undertone to its florals, along with a definite green side. It can sometimes smell a little like marigolds, in my experience. In contrast, dahlias can often take on a rose-like accord, while peonies can sometimes be like a mix between roses and lilacs (to my nose). That is definitely the case, here, with De Profundis.
De Profundis opens on my skin with a fragile, haunting and delicate bouquet of flowers. There is chrysanthemum with violets, green notes, white lilies and sweet, wet earth. Lurking at the edges are the peonies, chamomile flowers, incense and green notes. The chrysanthemums are the core base but, at this stage, the top notes really smell (in order) like white lilies, violets, delicate, light roses, and purple lilacs. The incense is interesting because it doesn’t feel like churchy smoke but, rather, more like something sweet. Perhaps, myrrh with its lighter touch. I also detect the smallest whiff of ISO E Super, the aromachemical that is often used as a “super floralizer” and to give longevity to floral fragrances.
The fragrance feels ethereal and very much like a call to Spring. The green notes dancing in and out, alongside the wet earth aroma that a gardener would know so well. The flowers feel incredibly dewy and light, almost tender and soft. It feels as though they are just waking up, releasing the airiest of delicate floral scents. De Profundis is, at the start, a slightly cool fragrance; it’s almost chilly in its delicacy. As time passes, however, the floral aroma becomes stronger, more robust, almost as if the flowers have fully bloomed in the sunlight. The dew has evaporated, the petals unfurled, and the meadow floor comes to life with earthy softness, light smoke, and every bit of green around. The peony and dahlia combination adds some warmth to the dryness of the chrysanthemum and to the coolness of the lily notes. As the incense recedes, the bouquet feels even sweeter.
Underneath it all, however, there is an odd metallic clang. There is almost a cold, tin-like aspect under the delicate bouquet and it grows in strength as the incense and wet earth notes fades. I think it stems from the ISO E Super, though I’m relieved that it is minimal and completely in the background. I do admit that it adds a very velvety touch to the base of the flowers, but something about that metallic note is also a little discordant amidst the delicate, ethereal flowers.
By the end of the first hour, De Profundis is almost like a photo-realistic bouquet at the florist, complete with the freshly cut, green stems. Lilies tinged with a delightful undertone of almonds dance a duet with the chrysanthemums that feel like a steely mix of roses, earth, and dry woodsy notes. There are elements of hay, peppery ISO E Super, dahlias and a hint of violets. There is also a light soapiness underlying the mix; I’m not normally a fan of soapy notes, but it’s extremely soft here and quite muted. But the mesmerizing thing to me are the green notes that undulate in frequency and strength. Sometimes just a hint, sometimes more, they always feel as though a florist just took shears to some thick green stems and cut them, releasing that lovely, wet, greenness.
Perhaps the greater beauty lies with the woodsy notes and their development starting at the 90 minute mark. The wood accord feels as soft as buttery suede. I actually do imagine suede: creamily taupe, almost velvety, with the brown hue coming from the woods that protectively surround that spring meadow in my mind. De Profundis’ breathy, dewy, fresh opening has been replaced by a supple smoothness and sensuous softness that is incredibly elegant. As time passes, that note is supplemented by surprising hints of dry almonds and creamy vanilla. Incense returns to join the mix as well. The flickers of smoke feel almost like the black vanilla bean flecks in almond ice-cream. The combination sweetens the wood note, turning it into a cross between sweetened hay, white woods and suede, atop the merest suggestion of vanilla.
At the start of the third hour, De Profundis is a skin scent of chrysanthemums, incense, buttery smooth, suede woods, and a hint of soap. The floral note almost smells like carnation at times, but I wonder if that is the merely the power of suggestion as carnations and chrysanthemums are often linked together in the West for funereal purposes. Speaking of which, I suppose now is the time to bring up the perfume’s back story.
De Profundis was created at a time when Serge Lutens was supposedly thinking of retiring, and it’s a perfume whose story is all about the twilight years and death. There is some argument as to whether the perfume’s name came from the 130th Psalm or from Oscar Wilde, but either way, Serge Lutens’ press release is all about death. From Fragrantica, a small portion of the lengthy, morbid soliloquy reads as follows:
When death steals into our midst, its breath flutters through the black crepe of mourning, nips at funeral wreaths and crucifixes, and ripples through the gladiola, chrysanthemums and dahlias. […]
What if the hearse were taking the deceased, surrounded by abundant flourish, to a final resting place in France, and leading altar boys, priest, undertaker, beadle and gravediggers to some sort of celebration where they could indulge gleefully in vice? Now that would be divine! […]
Turning gravesites held in perpetuity over to Life – a familiar of these haunts – the chrysanthemum invites Death to leave the cemetery and offer us its flower.
I intentionally held off the company’s back story for De Profundis because I think it creates a very misleading — not to mention, depressing — context for the fragrance. I truly don’t visualize any of this when wearing the beautiful purple juice. And, despite the frequent mental association of chrysanthemums with funerals in the West, I don’t think you’ll think of such dark, grim things while wearing De Profundis. Even in the final drydown — when the perfume smelled a lot of carnations, with light smoke, a dash of soap, and amorphous purple flowers like lilacs or hyacinth — it never felt funereal or somber. So, I urge you to put the whole thing out of your mind and not let it dissuade you from trying the fragrance.
Perhaps the lovely review from Bois de Jasmin will help:
[H]aving learned of the origins of De Profundis, one might expect a somber composition of funereal darkness. Nothing could be further from the truth—De Profundis is a soaring, ethereal vignette of green flowers, full of surprises and such magic twists that I once again have to take off my hat to Lutens and his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake.
On skin, the vivid violet juice of De Profundis (a brighter and lighter shade than that of Sarrasins) explodes into a mass of green petals and delicate tendrils. The floral accord has a springtime delicacy reminiscent of bluebells and hyacinths. A bitter green note that oscillates between the freshness of rose buds and the spiciness of carnations anchors the initial dewy impression. The filigree effect of floral notes and the cool, polished character of the early stages are reminiscent of Bas de Soie, but the flowers of De Profundis lack the detached, metallic artificiality of the latter. Embellished with subtle indolic accents, the floral notes assume a lush, nature-like quality. […]
[T]he genius of the composition for me lies in its marriage of surprising elements. On the one hand, De Profundis has a classical woody oriental structure where the incense and woods create a mysterious, sonorous effect; on the other, its crisp green floral accord has a radiance and freshness of Balmain Vent Vert, Jean Patou Vacances, or perhaps even more so, Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps. As the composition develops, the velvety richness of incense fills the spaces in between the leaves and petals, while the dewy bluebell impression that I found so captivating persists into the late dry down.
I find De Profundis exquisitely beautiful and serene, rather than overly cerebral and dark.
I fully agree with Victoria. In the rest of that review, she describes De Profundis as being effortlessly elegant, “spellbinding” and captivating. She’s also correct about the sillage and longevity, writing: “[g]ossamer, yet long lasting and possessing a great sillage, De Profundis is a floral composition for those who like their blossoms more abstract and complex.” Where I part ways with her is on the issue of the incense. On my skin, it was extremely light and subtle, while a number of commentators on Fragrantica never really experienced it at all.
Speaking of longevity, De Profundis lasted approximately 6.5 hours on my perfume-consuming skin. It was actually a surprise, given that I’ve read reports of it dying on some people after quite a short period of time. Its sillage is always low, though it didn’t become a skin scent until just after the third hour. And, though it’s an extremely airy, lightweight, seemingly sheer fragrance, De Profundis is much stronger than you’d suspect if you bring your arm to your nose.
Like Victoria, I think you’ll be disappointed in De Profundis if you’re looking for a dramatically intense, diva-like floral. I also think you’ll be disappointed if you’re looking for a pure floral. De Profundis is not a bouquet of flowers but, rather, the whole damn meadow and adjoining forest — from the earth to the green stems to the suede, buttery woods. It’s a discreet, unobtrusive, but haunting scent, and I think a very wearable one, too. Not all Serge Lutens are thus, since they can sometimes be more akin to abstract, olfactory art (Tubereuse Criminelle — I’m looking at you!), but I can easily see De Profundis as a fragrance that you’d wear to the office, business meetings, a walk in the park, or tea at the Ritz. It may not be a date-night fragrance, but its elegance and those buttery suede woods may surprise you.
Most of all, I think you will find De Profundis to be an introverted, haunting, slightly melancholy, cool fragrance that is always elegant. It truly evokes purple twilight and Spring flowers. Try De Profundis, and take a walk in the meadows or in the Luxembourg Gardens at twilight.