Close your eyes, and imagine yourself in a field in Provence. Fresh lavender stretches out in an aromatic purple expanse as far as the eye can see. Slashes of white are interspersed throughout, heliotrope whose delicate blooms launch a powerful cascade of vanilla, marzipan, fresh anise, and powdered meringue. Running through the heart of field is a river of vanilla, silky and creamy, coiling its way around the purple and white flowers to create the scent of lavender ice-cream dusted with meringue and anise. The earth below them is made of patchouli, its spiciness complemented by something a little extra that smells of cinnamon, cloves, and chili-pepper. All around, encircling the field like a dark wall, is a forest filled with myrtle, wafting its unique aromas of spicy herbs, fruity sap, herbal flowers, and green woods. Cedar grows there, too, along with green vetiver that first smells mineralized, mossy, and minty, and then, later, smoky and woody.
Only he could do it. Only Serge Lutens could make a fragrance that a lavender-phobe would not only love, but buy. And not just buy a regular bottle of it, but buy a bloody expensive, exclusive bell jar! Only a true master could make a fragrance that is essentially everything that I dislike in a fragrance, and bring me to my knees.
It’s as though Uncle Serge decided to make me eat my hat by checking off every box that would normally make me wince — lavender, gourmand, sweet, sheer, discreet, and even sometimes vanishing, no less — intentionally combine them all into a single scent, and make the final result be something utterly beyond my ability to resist. It’s actually amusing at this point — and I say that as one who needs to take frequent breaks in typing to sniff the air around me with the glazed eyes of an addict. Only Le Grand Serge and Christopher Sheldrake could manage that.
Fourreau Noir is an Oriental eau de parfum that was created by Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2009. As noted above, it is one of the famous bell jar “Paris Exclusives,” which means that it not sold world-wide, but is generally exclusive to Serge Lutens’ Paris headquarters. That said, it can actually be purchased outside of France, either from Barney’s New York or directly from Serge Lutens’ international and U.S. websites, though it’s always at a big mark-up if you are buying outside of France.
Uncle Serge describes the scent and the meaning of its name as follows:
A fourreau in French means a sheath for a dagger as well as a form-fitting dress… ready to embrace the voluptuous contours of a widow’s body.
Maybe you’ve heard of the brown bean used to extract vanillin? Its name is the tonka bean. It grows in abundance on a tree in the Amazonian rain forest. Sweet and fluid, its fragrance lingers, living its mark.
As always, Serge Lutens keeps the perfume’s notes secret. Fragrantica says they are:
Lavender, tonka, musk, almonds, smokey accords
Based on what I smell, however, I think the list would be longer. My guess is:
Lavender, Incense, Patchouli, Almonds, Tonka Bean, Vanilla, Cedarwood, and Musk. There may be some ambery element as well.
Fourreau Noir opens on my skin with lavender. Have I mentioned lately just how much I loathe lavender? It is a note that I struggle with deeply, due to childhood experiences living in Cannes, in the South of France, where dried herbal sachets of the blasted stuff were ubiquitous. Their sharp, pungent, aggressively herbal aroma was everywhere, and it didn’t help matters that the driveway to our house had lavender growing as if it were on steroids. I had a sensitive nose even back then, and the aromatic deluge left a mark, making me avoid lavender as an adult whenever and wherever possible. As you might have gathered by now, this is the first of what will be several examples of Serge Lutens making me eat my hat because, yes, Fourreau Noir opens with lavender. And lots of it. En plus, it’s pungent, herbal, and dried — everything that would normally send a bone-deep shiver through my body.
Those magicians, Messieurs Lutens and Sheldrake, quickly coat and cloak the lavender with the black sheath talked about in Fourreau Noir’s description. Like loving tentacles, incense wraps itself around those blasted purple stalks, lovingly turning them dark and smoky. Within moments, my hated, floral, herbal nemesis is also infused with sweetness from a lightly spiced, chewy, slightly earthy patchouli. It, too, is a bit smoked, and the dark sheath is even further supplemented by what smells to me like dry, also smoky cedar wood.
There is something a little synthetic about all the sharpness, something biting that almost burns my nose, but it is soon countered by a wave of warm sweetness. Like a pale, white counterpart to the the black incense tendrils, creamy vanilla and tonka bean seep through. They curl their way around the sharp notes, fractionally dulling their razor’s edge. The sweetness is gauzy but strong, light but potent, and always feels like the very frothiest mousse. Subtle hints of a bitter fresh almond soon follow, along with an intangible woodiness that differs a little from the smoky, dry cedar.
Five minutes in, the patchouli starts to slowly become more prominent, feeling wonderfully red-brown with its spicy, sweet, earthy facets. It’s potent, but never dense, chewy, or opaque in feel. It is true patchouli, even down to the very fleeting, momentary and faint hint of something medicinal in its character. It is a touch which underscores the more herbal aspects of the lavender. Yet, despite that, the flower is never completely like the aggressively pungent, aggressively herbal, dried, acrid note that is the stuff of my nightmares. Thanks to the impact of the other notes, especially the patchouli and incense, the lavender has been transformed into something different. It is now simultaneously incense-y, a little floral, and a little darkly leathered, herbal, and sweet.
Fourreau Noir encompasses you like a cloud that is at once almost translucent and as tough as steel. I’ve worn differing amounts, but most recently tried 3 decent-sized sprays, and Fourreau Noir’s opening spread its tentacles about 4-5 inches around me. It is potent and intense, yet oddly feels as insubstantial and thin as the smoke it contains. It’s like being covered in a swirl of incense and lavender, tendrils that weave about you as thin as an invisible thread, but with enormous tenacity. I’m amazed by how sheer it is, and by the mental images of translucency. Take that as Exhibit No. Two of Serge Lutens making me eat my hat, as perfumes with a gauzy, almost invisible sheerness are far from my personal cup of tea.
What’s even more baffling about the odd case of Fourreau Noir is that it actually feels as though it disappears from my skin from time to time. On past occasions, there were times when fragrance felt as though it had evaporated after about 90 minutes, and it wasn’t always easy to detect. Yet, it still lingered all around me, an undeniable cloud of incense, patchouli, and lavender. It would follow me like a lap-dog, leaving a small trail in the air. At other times, however, I couldn’t detect any projection at all, but Fourreau Noir was clearly pulsating and evident on my skin. Occasionally, it seemed to slip away like a ghost, only to reappear, almost stronger than it had been before, just as I was about to apply more. Fourreau Noir is a perplexing creature with a mind of its own, flitting about, encapsulating you, weaving some mysterious spell around you that makes you ignore all your usual issues or concerns as you smell that entrancing mixture of sharp contrasts. Dry, smoky, sweet, earthy, herbal, and woody — it’s all there, all around you, potent and dark, and yet, as insubstantial as a ghost. How can I love it so?!
Exhibit Three of Le Grand Serge making me tolerate what I normally dislike is the synthetic feel underlying Fourreau Noir’s opening hour. It is most definitely there, and I can’t stand fragrances whose unnatural sharpness almost burns my nose if I smell my arm up close. It’s not only that a few of the notes like the lavender or the incense feel like a razor at times, but something genuinely synthetic in the base. I can’t pinpoint what it may be, though I suspect it’s the musk, combined with notes that are inherently a bit sharp in nature. And, yet, I don’t mind it. Even though it lingers high in my nose and burns a little, Fourreau Noir is simply too beautiful a combination for me to really care. Yes, Uncle Serge, I will have another piece of that humble pie.
The fragrance continues to subtly shift. Twenty minute in, the patchouli becomes increasingly prominent, while the almond and vanilla foam in the base start their slow rise to the surface. As the supporting actors begin to arrive on stage, they counterbalance the lavender’s herbal, almost leathery undertone, the fierceness of the incense, and the dryness of the cedar. The vanilla tames the beastly lavender and smoke, while the almond’s bitter facets add a fascinating contrast to the earthiness of the lightly spiced patchouli.
At the end of the first hour, Fourreau Noir turns much sweeter, and borders almost on the gourmand. The lavender is now creamy, rich, and feels like lavender ice cream infused with almond extract. Yet, the perfume isn’t really a true dessert-y fragrance, thanks to the constant presence of the dry notes that swirl all around like a dark cloud. From the temple-like, black incense trails, to the dry smoky cedar, and even the earthy spiciness of the patchouli, there are too many checks and balances to the creamy lavender-vanilla-almond sherbert. What the sweeter notes really do is to soften that early razor sharpness, though the synthetic undertone to Fourreau Noir still remains at the base.
The perfume continues to soften. About 2.5 hours in, it lingers extremely close to the skin, and the patchouli has become as prominent as the incense, while the lavender has started to recede. There is something almost ambered to Fourreau Noir’s base, though the golden sweetness and warmth may simply be the indirect impact of the tonka bean on the patchouli. Whatever the cause, Fourreau Noir is now primarily a bouquet of patchouli amber with smoky incense, atop a vanilla base that is infused with almond and lavender, and lightly flecked with musk and abstract, dry woodiness.
There is also the merest, subtlest suggestion of something that smells like gingerbread, and it becomes increasingly strong. By the end of the 4th hour, it’s quite noticeable and I suspect that the creamy woods, the vanilla, and patchouli’s spicy, earth sweetness have all melded together to create a sweet-spiced gingerbread accord. It’s too dry, however, to be like actual dessert or cloying; the sweetness is perfectly balanced. In fact, the unexpected gingerbread element eventually turns drier and woody, taking on an almost sandalwood-like aroma. The overall effect strongly calls to mind Chanel‘s gorgeous Bois des Iles with its very close replication of Mysore sandalwood in its base and drydown.
Fourreau Noir turns increasingly abstract, and its final drydown is a simple, utterly lovely mix of sweetness, woodiness, and creamy smoothness. It’s a patchouli amber gingerbread with the lightest hint of spices, incense, and creamy, wispy, gauzy vanillic sweetness. All in all, Fourreau Noir’s duration averages out to about 10.5 hours on my perfume-consuming skin with three sprays being the median quantity applied. A smaller amount yields about 9.5 hours, while 4 big sprays results in about 11.75 hours. At all times, however, the fragrance feels sheer, almost translucent, and gauzy in weight. The sillage generally drops after about 75-minutes with a small amount, 90-minutes with a medium amount, and 2.5 hours with more. Fourreau Noir only becomes a true skin scent on me around the end of the fourth hour, though there are the issues mentioned earlier about the fragrance sometimes acting like a ghost in terms of projection, as well as strength on the skin.
I was surprised to read some of the reactions to Fourreau Noir as it has alternatively been described as a very clean scent, a masculine one, a deliciously gourmand one, a perfume similar to Chergui, and even, on one rare occasion, an animalic, almost dirty fragrance. All those opinions are noticeable on Fragrantica and in blog reviews. The Non Blonde referred to the latter in her very positive assessment of Fourreau Noir where she compared it to a cozy, cuddly, fuzzy, long sweater with a slightly clean vibe:
Sometimes my taste in perfume makes me question my sanity. Many reviews and impressions of Fourreau Noir, a 2009 non-export Serge Lutens release, mention/lament/ celebrate two accords- black smoke and a dirty animalic heart. For some of the people who tried Fourreau Noir (the loaded name translates as black sheath) these aspects made it difficult to wear. Me? My skin diffuses smoke and domesticates large beasts. I find Fourreau Noir not just soft and cuddly but also as comfortable and embracing as an old hoodie fresh from the laundry.
I mentioned laundry for a reason. The lavender note is strong in the opening and quite persistent after. […] Fourreau Noir is fuzzy and warm as though it just left the dryer. The lavender over a sweet gourmand base supports this idea, though it’s not exactly Downy Lavender-Vanilla fabric softener. Don’t worry.
Fourreau Noir is musky, but to me it’s a fairly clean musk with a hint of fruitiness. The tactile equivalent is of a soft silk-merino knit, kind of like the long wrap sweater with caressing kimono sleeves I’m wearing now as I’m typing this review. This coziness is helped greatly by the sweet gourmand dry-down. Tonka bean, almond cookies covered in very light powdered sugar and lots and lots of immortelle. I love immortelle on its mapley goodness, and in this case the maple smells like it was aged and smoked in old wood barrels. This is the kind of stuff I expect and enjoy from our favorite uncle.
Obviously, my experience is a bit different from hers, and I don’t find that musk to be either clean or dirty, but I definitely agree that our mutually adored, favorite uncle created a beautiful scent whose drydown is of sweet, smoked, woody goodness.
At the end of the day, I find Fourreau Noir to be a delectably dark fragrance that is quite addictive in its coziness. It really shouldn’t have wrapped its tendrils around me in quite the way that it did. It is a fragrance centered, in large part, on a note that I despise, but it was genius to mix lavender with such unexpected elements as dark smoke, almonds and patchouli. It obviously helps that I’m a sucker for patchouli, but still, everyone who knows me is shocked that Fourreau Noir is the fragrance that I chose as my first bell jar. I am too, actually.
I had initially gone to the Palais Royal with plans to get a very different scent, perhaps the beautiful De Profundis with its delicate floral heart and gorgeous purple liquid. (I actually ended up with De Profundis as my second bell jar perfume!) While there, testing all the different perfumes, the gardenia-tobacco ode to Billie Holiday, Une Voix Noire, beckoned to me even more insistently than when I had tried it. My beloved Cuir Mauresque (the perfume that Serge Lutens himself wears) trumped both of them, but it’s ridiculous to buy it in a rare, expensive bell jar form when the perfume is also available for much cheaper overseas in a regular 1.7 oz spray bottle.
I was actually testing the Bois series of fragrances, and marveling over Bois et Fruits, when I happened to put Fourreau Noir on my wrist. It caught my attention almost immediately, but there was far too much going on, and I needed to assess each fragrance’s longevity. There were no samples to be had, so I clutched little scented strips wrapped tightly in plastic and went home to ponder the issue. Two days later, when I returned, I was still undecided. It was down between Bois et Fruits and Fourreau Noir, with Une Voix Noir perhaps in third place.
In the end, something about Fourreau Noir seemed more special to me, more unique, mysterious, and entrancing. I loved the mix of sweetness with the sharp, dry incense, and the way that dark smoke weaved its gauzy, tenacious tendrils around me like a witch’s spell. Fourreau Noir has never really seemed like a pure lavender fragrance to me; if it had, I would have run a mile in the opposite direction shrieking for help. It also seemed to be beyond easy categorization; neither “gourmand” nor “dark incense” really describe its core essence. In some ways, it’s everything and nothing, just like its peculiar, occasionally ghostly sillage that can also be a tenacious, sheer, potent cloud. It is a fragrance that seems at once very simple, but also very nuanced and layered.
Perhaps the best explanation for Fourreau Noir’s hold over me is the dark elusiveness at its heart, an elusiveness that is so very Serge Lutens. How else can one explain a lavender phobe falling for such a fragrance? I tried the much-vaunted, endlessly worshiped, lavender gourmand fragrance, Kiki, from Vero Profumo, and was bored to tears. I found it simple, uninteresting, lacking in nuance, and banal. Perhaps I simply needed dark magic? Or perhaps only a master like Serge Lutens can create a perfume that encompasses everything one dislikes, but make it so delectable that you can’t help but fall into its addictive embrace. Yes, the answer has to be Serge Lutens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to put on some lavender, and eat some humble pie.