Perfume Review – Ormonde Jayne Tolu: A Perfect, Lovely Paradox

Paradox: (noun) A seemingly absurb or self-contradictory statement that, when investigated, may well prove to be true. Tolu, from the luxe niche London house of OJ ToluOrmonde Jayne, is a paradox in the most mesmerizing way possible. It is an airy, breezy, narcotically heady, heavy, dewy green, freshly orange floral… no, I mean, lushly spicy amberous oriental, no, I mean, a woody, balsam and pine smoky floriental…  It is a contradiction that delights, that keeps your nose plastered to your arm, that awes you with its heady, airy opulence, and that recalls the happiest moments of carefree youth while making you feel every inch a sophisticated adult. It is intoxicating. And I cannot recommend it enough.

Linda Pilkington, founder of Ormande Jayne.

Linda Pilkington, founder of Ormonde Jayne.

Ormonde Jayne is a high-end, niche London perfume house founded by Linda Pilkington in 2002. She sounds like a fascinating woman. According to her biography on the website, her passion for perfumery began early, as a teenager, and this “led Linda to her first career, growing and selling flowers by the roadside outside her Cheshire family home. She also learnt to make scented candles and bathing oils from craft sets and courses, and created beautiful scented cushions for birthday and Christmas presents.” After years spent travelling and exploring the world, working in places from South America, Africa and the Far East, soy bean farms to ice cream parlours, she returned to London where she began making her own perfumes. She showed her creations at a London trade show where she won repeatedly. And then she was asked to make “the perfect, scented candle” for Chanel itself. After that, in 2002, she opened her own boutique and her perfumes have received praise ever since, including a number of 5- and 4-star reviews from Luca Turin.

Ormonde Jayne’s philosophy is simple:

one of quality and true luxury, the pursuit of beauty and elegance. Our perfume library reposes on an exquisitely simple principle – extraordinarily beautiful scents using speciality oils not widely used in the perfume industry today.

Her goal is to return

to the golden age of perfumery, an elegant era when fragrance creation was a fine art, when essential oils and absolutes were allowed to infuse for a period of months before filtration and then allowed to mature again before bottling, resulting in a deeper, more complex perfume.

Honestly, I cannot recall the last time I was so impressed with a niche house upon my very first sniff, and I plan to investigate her whole line, sample by sample. My first exposure to Frederic Malle, Serge Lutens, Amouage, L’Artisan, Tom Ford, By Kilian, Caron, Montale, and a whole host of other lines never resulted in anything like this. My reactions to those houses varied from indifference to ambivalence, from liking to loving (but not feeling utterly compelled to buy), to truly not understanding what all the fuss was about. Ormonde Jayne is different. It’s not simply that Tolu was bewitching, but that the perfume smells unbelievably luxurious and rich in that genuinely old-school, classique manner of the haute French perfume houses of yesteryear. THIS is what perfumes used to be, almost across the board, and what they are so rarely today.

This is class. It is class, purity, and luxury made simple but, yet, also made fresh and modern at the same time. It’s like smelling the vintage version of some great classic, but made even better. No wonder Luca Turin seems to think that Ormonde Jayne is beating Caron and Guerlain at their own game. I hadn’t believed him when I read that statement a while back and, in truth, I don’t always agree with Mr. Turin, but dammit, he’s absolutely correct in this instance. “Tolu is the kind of fragrance Guerlain or Caron would be turning out regularly if all was right in the world[.]”

If I ever met Ms. Pilkington, I would hug her for returning some of my wide-eyed innocence and belief, after feeling far too long jaded, cynical and oh so depressed at the current state of perfumes in this IFRA-infected world. I would also hug her for her blunt statement in a 2010 interview with the Perfume Shrine that she will never reformulate her perfumes, allergies be damned! “No, we haven’t reformulated anything. I never will. Nor discontinue any in our fragrance rotation. We have 12 fragrances now and I absolutely love each and every one of them. I don’t want to make any changes!” When asked what she would say to a customer asking about allergic reactions, her response was:

I say “If you think madame that it might be give you any risk of an allergic reaction, it would be best if you didn’t buy this perfume”. We talk over some of the ingredients (if the customer knows about any specific trigger or if we think there might be some) and I say “just don’t buy it”. In the end, I don’t give a f*ck if they buy or not, as long as we’re stand our ground and do not mislead. *laughing*

Fascinating as Ms. Pilkington is, nothing is more so than Tolu. I’m hard-pressed not to summarize my entire review in one word: heaven! But, in an attempt to make you understand why I am so thrilled (and why I had to keep stopping writing to sniff my arms), let me tell you more about the scent itself. According to Fragrantica (where it has nary a single bad review), Tolu is classified as a Woody Oriental. (I think there should be a new category entitled “Perfect Paradox.”) It is technically a woman’s eau de parfum, though I think a man could pull this off, especially during the dry-down.

Ormonde Jayne’s website states:

Perfume treasure, this opulent velvety formulation with pure Tolu resin [a Peruvian tree resin] takes you on a sensual Oriental journey. Laced with golden frankincense and amber, the scent’s core is enveloped with a heady mix of orange blossom and clary sage, while intense citrus notes consolidate the harmony.

Top Notes: Juniper berry, orange blossom and clary sage
Heart Notes: Orchid, Moroccan rose and muguet [lily-of-the-valley]
Base Notes: Tolu, tonka bean, golden frankincense and amber.

You know those word association games? I put on Tolu and the very first word that shoots across my brain is “Enchanting!” In fact, that is the first thing I jotted down. There is warm, billowing blanket of orange blossom which immediately rolls onto thenerolifruitandflowersb skin. It’s not screechy, sharp and overpoweringly cloying like Tom Ford‘s Neroli Portofino, nor is it overly sweet like many synthetic orange scents. It’s also not light and imperceptible like the orange in a few niche perfumes. It’s heady in a soft way, and is one of the brightest, freshest orange blossom scents I’ve smelled in a long time. The sillage is also powerful, which makes me ecstatic as, far too often for my liking, orange blossom is merely a faint hint amongst many supporting notes. Not here. It is the star, stage center, with the brightest lights shining on it.


Mimosa in the South of France.

I must confess at the outset that I have a monumental weakness for orange blossom that supercedes many other ingredients or notes that I love. And the orange blossom here reminds me strongly of the oils or essences used in my favorite body cream, Couvent de Minimes Orange Blossom. Here, as there, there is a purity to the scent that makes it clear that real oils were used in the product. It calls to mind my childhood in Cannes with visits to Provence; I am immediately transported back to my old home at the end of Spring. Summer is around the corner, and there is a vast sea of orange trees in bloom along side golden mimosas bushes swaying in the wind under blue skies that are neither hazy with heat nor pale eggshell blue from the winter. The orange is intoxicating, narcotic and, yet, so airy at the same time that it feels like fizzy champagne in an odd way. It’s been only 15 minutes and, yet, I ponder currency exchanges in my head and whether my bank account can afford an immediate purchase, while the sane part of my brain pleads to wait out the full development of the perfume before acting rashly.


Juniper berries.

Thirty minutes in, a faintly smoky warmth starts to creep in. Amber that is rich, almost nutty, and with a faint hint of smoke from incense. Oddly, the scent on one arm is very different from that on the other where I smell no amber at all but, rather, crisp pine needles and balsam. It must come from the juniper berries listed in the top notes, and it is fresh, bright and rich — as if plucked just moments before from living trees growing on the high reaches of the snowy Alps. Clearly, some extremely expensive oils must have been used because at no time does it smell sharp, synthetic, or like the common air-freshener sort of pine in some perfumes. On both arms, the orange blossoms seem to have receded momentarily, as if to make way for the fresh, woody pines and amber, but it is just for a moment. The orange blossom is not only the quietly solid foundation upon which other notes rest, but a permanent part of this opening stage.

Soon, the juniper recedes and the flowers return. As always, there is the rich top head of orange blossom but there are other accompanying notes, too, even if they are but supporting players on the stage. There is also orchid and lily-of-the-valley. Orchid is a hard scent to describe, or even to classify, as it can smell of a variety of different things, depending on type. To me, white orchids can sometimes evoke the light purple impression of lilac and hyacinth, but in an oddly earthy way. That is the way the orchid seems to smell here. Lily-of-the-valley (or muguet) smells somewhat similar to my nose, bouquet-de-muguetwithout the earthy richness. The Perfume Shrine describes lily-of-the-valley as follows:

Lily of the valley is technically a green floral with rosy-lemony nuance [which] … has been adequately used in classical fragrances as a catalyst to “open up” and freshen the bouquet of the other floral essences in the heart, much like we allow fresh air to come in contact with an uncorked red wine to let it “breathe” and bring out its best.

To me, however, lily-of-the-valley is a light, fresh floral note that smells almost like a green, lilac-hyacinth hybrid. Here, it counters the headiness of the orange blossom with freshness that is dewy and ethereally light. It is almost sheer, and yet, it has depth and richness. The note makes Tolu, in these very early stages, call to mind the delicacy of Dior‘s Diorissimo, a very lily-of-the-valley scent.

Thus far, Tolu has leaned far more towards a floral scent than an oriental, let alone a spicy woody one. There are amber notes which flicker back and forth, but, for the first two hours, I have the reverse experience of what some people report. I don’t get spice right off the bat at all. There is the Diorissimo resemblance from the lily-of-the-valley, along with some rose and the hyacinth-like notes of orchid. And all of this is within the warm haze of orange blossom. The latter is something which projects outwards, while the other scents are closer to the skin, almost as if they were inside a big, airy, orange coccoon.

I can now smell the clary sage, but never think that it is the same sort of sage that you use in cooking. According to a helpful discussion on Basenotes, clary sage is nothing like regular (Dalmatian) sage that you have in your herb rack. It is sweeter, fresher and with a hint of peppermint, while Dalmatian sage is more bitter, biting and aromatic. Clary sage is also said to have elements of lavender in its odor profile and, sometimes, even of green tea. Here, it adds to the impression of freshness and lightness in Tolu, while also adding a faintly minty, sweet note that cuts through some of the richness of the orange blossom. It’s almost as if a faintly minty lavender note has joined those orange blossoms and dewy, green flowers, but it’s so light that I wonder if I imagine it at times.

That lightness, along with much of the airiness in Tolu, brings me to one of the perfume’s several lovely contradictions. It is airy and light, while narcotically heady and heavy. I realise that I’m not making much sense. It is the ultimate example of a paradox and really requires that you test out this scent yourself to understand it. The best way I can explain it is that there are two polar opposite groups of scents here. The first is the dewy, fresh, green, spring-like notes: lily-of-the-valley; white orchid; lavender-y and minty clary sage; and then, lilac and hyacinth (though they are not listed as ingredients, their smell is there to me). It flashes colours of white, lavender, soft lilac and bright green, all in a soft, airy light of the dawn’s first dew. The second competing group is the scent of just one thing: orange blossoms. Narcotically heavy, almost inducing an obsessive inability to resist sniffing my arm, triggering an utter delirium of joy amidst the flashing colours of bright orange at the heart of noon. It is a paradox, yes, but it is also a sign of a masterful hand. I contemplate why I only smelled Tolu after Christmas, and not before when it would have been at the very top of my wish list.

An hour in, rich vanilla starts to appear. It’s creamy, not powdery, and smells faintly like a rich, banana custard. It almost makes me think of ylang-ylang but there is no such ingredient in Tolu. Some people on Fragrantica have referenced an oriental milky rice note, but I think the accord is far richer and heavier than the light sort of milky rice note I associate with scents like Kenzo‘s Amour line. I think the issue here is the combination of tonka bean and tolu balsam. Tonka bean smells of vanilla, while tolu balsam is a tree resin. Unlike benzoin, another resin, tolu balsam has a nutty, sometimes almond-like accord to accompany its vanilla and cinnamon heart. (You can read more about tolu balsam and other resins in the Glossary.) It has a greater richness and depth than the often powdery benzoin accord.

Soon, tolu balsam’s soft, lush, warm vanilla notes are joined by spice and smoke. I smell rich frankincense, but it is not peppery or dirty. The vanilla from the tonka bean and its accompanying powder notes soften the blunt edges of the frankincense, turning the latter into a light swirl of black smoke, rather than a heavy darkness. The rich resins and the myrrh create an impression of caramel and amber, but touched with a woody pine accord.

Three hours in, and all the way to the end of its dry-down at hour seven, Tolu is all incense, vanilla, honeyed amber and caramel, with a hint of pine. The subtle smoke and incense are gorgeous, as is the surprising earthiness that contradicts the velvety softness underlying the sweet scent. That said, for me, the dry-down never really progresses much beyond the panoply of resinous notes. It’s lovely, rich and soft, but I preferred those hypnotic opening and middle notes. (It’s hardly surprising given my passion for orange blossom.)

All in all, this is an utterly luxurious, captivating scent. It doesn’t perform twists of complexity, doesn’t have suddenly crazy notes popping in at a random stage, doesn’t try to shock you with something edgily disturbing, and doesn’t do anything other than the promise Ormonde Jayne made at the outset: “one of quality and true luxury, the pursuit of beauty and elegance.” It is a perfume that I have to have. It is a scent that will make me join the legion of admirers on Fragrantica who repeat “gorgeous,” “sophisticated,” and “classy” like a broken record. It smells of wealth and luxury; the sunny South of France interposed with the pine-covered snowy Alps of Gstaad, and the smoke of the Orient. It is a paradox wrapped in opulence, but it enchants you from the very first whiff. And it is utterly perfect.

Sillage & Longevity: Enormous sillage for the first three hours, then closer to the skin. However, on others, the projection is reported to last even longer. As for longevity, it was quite good, though as always you have to keep in mind that my body consumes perfume. On me, I could smell traces of it on my arm seven hours after putting it on. It was soft, but it was there. On others, the longevity is reported to be enormous.
Cost & Availability: The fragrance is available in perfume extract (30%) and eau de parfum (25%) in 50 ml flacon. Tolu is available at the Ormonde Jayne store in London, at Harrods in London, Fortum & Mason, or on Ormonde Jayne’s website. It is not sold in any department stores in the U.S. The website offers purchases in USD currency and, until January 14th, 2013, all shipping is complimentary with a hand-poured candle is offered as a free gift. The website’s page for purchases in US dollar lists the costs of Tolu as follows: a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle of eau de parfum costs $126, while the pure parfum comes in a 1.7 oz/50 ml “premium French flacon with a gold OJ motif stopper and Japanese ribbons” and costs $300. There is a set of travel sized purse sprays (4 x 10ml) that costs $100 and a Discovery set of all 12 fragrances in 2 ml mini-sprays for $75. The latter is described as follows: “Ormonde Jayne’s Discovery Set is comprised of 12 x 2ml mini sprays of eau de parfum, together with a brochure explaining each perfume, all housed in a black and gold box… and whats more, the shipping is complimentary worldwide.” Tolu is also available in different bath, lotion, cream and candle forms. Harrods sells a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle of Tolu for £80.00. Ormonde Jayne fragrances are also sold in Brussels, Belgium at Senteurs d’Ailleurs and at Osswald in Zurich, Switzerland.
Samples: You can also order samples of Tolu from various sample sites. The one I use, Surrender to Chance, sells samples starting at $3.99 for half of the standard 1 ml vial. Surrender to Chance ships worldwide for about $5.95 (though it’s a little bit more for larger orders over $75), and for $2.95 for all orders within the U.S., regardless of the size of the order.

Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Serge Noire: Janus & The Cloven Beast

Serge Lutens describes Serge Noire as a phoenix rising from the ashes. Phoenix Rising 2Perhaps. I see it more as a cloven beast, with “cloven” referring not only to the cloves that make up such a large part of its character but also to the traditional definition of the word: split in two. To me, Serge Noire is Janus, that ancient Roman god with two faces and the god of beginnings and ends. In common, modern parlance, you might say that Serge Noire is slightly bi-polar.

A good starting point in discussing Serge Noire is the Lutens’ press release. As provided by BoisdeJasmin, it states:

The ether of ashes… A phoenix, the mythical bird of legend burns at the height of its splendour before emerging triumphant, reborn from the ashes in a choreography of flame, conjuring the shapes of yesterday in a dance of ashes. The swirls of oriental grey enrich the twilight with depth and intensity while windswept memories hint at the beauty of transformation. An ode to everlasting beauty under cover of night’s rich plumage.

The Lutens website omits the poetry, and simply says:

nothing can capture this scent’s spirit better than subtle “snapshots” from the past, like a forgotten glove lying on an antique chair.

Incense stirred by the smell of burnt wood.

The full, complete notes for Serge Noire are hard to pinpoint with any uniform, agreed-upon accuracy. The consensus on the basic elements seems to be: cloves, cinnamon, patchouli, incense and “dark woods.” However, Perfume Shrine also referenced “elemi,” a spicy, peppery and citrusy resin. Fragrantica gives the notes as: “patchouli, cinnamon, amber, woody notes, incense, clove, spices and ebony wood.” And, yet, most think that there must be some cumin in there too. I also see repeated references to grey ash, labdanum/cistus, benzoin and castoreum. (Castoreum essentially comes a beaver’s anal sacs and has been used in such famous fragrances as Shalimar, Jicky, Cuir de Russie, Antaeus, Amouage Epic and more. See, the Glossary for a full definition and more details.) I’ve even read a few comments that mention gunpowder too!

I was a bit terrified to try out Serge Noire because of the sheer forcefulness of the negative reviews. This is a fragrance that seems to engender extremely intense reviews, but the positive ones on places like Basenotes are nowhere as vehemently extreme as the negative ones. (If you’re ever bored, I suggest reading some of the comments. At the very least, they’re really amusing.) To give you an idea of some of the Basenotes comments:

  • “Sacré bleu, Serge! Why did you market this horror?”
  • “[W]hy did I buy this? just like chewing tin foil”
  • “It starts out like a punch in the face and a savage cauterizing of the ol’factory with several murderous spices. Then ATTACK OF THE CLOVES and suddenly your feet are raised high above your head as you are hoisted in the dental chair preparing for root canal treatment. This surely must be somebody’s idea of a practical joke.”
  • “Absolutely, incredibly and horribly foul. One of the most disgusting things I have ever smelled in my life.”
  • “Pure evil!”

An even more alarming review came from NST where the perfume was compared to a potpourri of ingredients whose recipe included, just in small part, the following:

  • 50 pieces of charred cassia bark (the bark should be blackened and retain only the most rancid traces of oil and odor);
  • Ten 1/8-inch slices of Swiss cheese;
  • Chain-gang T-shirt bits (with scissors, cut out and save the stained, armpit areas (bits) of 25 sweaty T-shirts that have been worn at least 10 hours on a 90-100 degree day;
  • One large box of moth balls, roasted (roast on a grill in the open air while wearing a HEPA-filter mask); and
  • 10 handfuls of singed hair (… for pre-singed locks, visit the worstsalon in your area and obtain fall-out from recently botched dye jobs, hair-straightening sessions, permanents, etc.).

Finally, pour the contents of three bottles of Angostura bitters and two bottles of grenadine into the bucket, top off with more salt, and let the mixture ‘rest’ in the (covered) bucket — in a dark and dank place — under lock and key — for at least two weeks.

To be fair, there are a lot of extremely passionate, gushing, postive reviews for Serge Noire, with its fans calling it the best Lutens fragance “in years” and with others applauding the genius of the “nose” behind its creation, the very famous Christopher Sheldrake. Some of those — like Perfume Shrine‘s review — wax so poetically, they are almost other-worldly. In fact, the latter review seemed much more like existentialist tract on philosophy and poetry than an assessment of mere perfume.

Nonetheless, I’ve found the horror outweights the poetry when it comes to reactions. There are also constant references to “BO” (body odor) and sweat which I found alarminng. But when Smelly Thoughts — a blogger who adores niche fragrances that are somewhat avant-garde or extreme — called it “hideous” just a few days ago, I really paled a little. So, it’s not surprising that I put it on with great trepidation. And I must say, I hardly find it to be “pure evil.”

I loved the opening spray of Serge Noire, but I wonder how much of my reaction stemmed from enormous relief rather than actual love. My initial notes actually read like this: “CLOVES! No sweat, thank god! Ooops… sweat.” As someone who cooks extensively, I have issues with cumin and, to me, it often evokes an impression of dirty, sweaty socks with the rancid, fetid body odor of someone who has never understood the joys of soap and water. Serge Noire definitely evoked “BO.” But, to my surprise, there was just a fleeting note of sweat in the opening salvo. Instead, I was strongly reminded of the smell of a leather saddle, slightly damp and with a touch of the horse or rider’s sweat. There was also a fascinating mix of camphor to counter the sweetness of the clove and what almost seemed like star anise. There is a faint touch of something medicinal that vaguely brings to mind Tiger’s Balm muscle rub, but it’s a sweet note as compared to the sharply metallic, cold, screechy medicinal accord in some oud fragrances. The camphor is not a surprise;Sheldrake has used it before in fragrances for Serge Lutens. Tubereuse Criminelle is perhaps the most well-known for that accord but there, the camphor mixes with a green floral scent, not with something as sweet as cloves and cinnamon.

I was so enchanted by the warmth of the cloves that I actually added another two sprays (though small in size) to my other arm. The cloves are a bit surprising in their expression on my skin; they’re not sharp but deeper, warmer and more well-rounded than I had expected. Some of the Lutens fragrances can be a bit cacophonous in their opening but Serge Lutens surprises me by being much tamer than the ferocious, hideous beast of the reviews.

I was really enjoying the fragrance thus far and it made me feel rather Christmas-y in some ways. Yet, the strongest and most constant memory that it evoked was Estée Lauder’s legendary Cinnabar, that famous 70s cousin to YSL’s Opium. The cloves in Serge Noire are, on my skin, much sharper than the more cinnamon-predominant Cinnabar, but they definitely share similarities to my mind and not solely because they are powerhouse scents centered around cinnamon and cloves. No, there is definitely a slightly retro feel to Serge Noire, though it’s a modern take on retro with the cinnamon.

On MakeupAlley, one commentator said they smelled “deadly hot pepper” but I don’t see it. Another said that she had a very strong impressed of ketchup mixed with a spicy BO scent. I definitely agree on the ketchup, but it’s a very vague, tenuous and fleeting impression, and it’s really due to the cloves and patchouli. Others reference the frankincense but to me, in the first two hours, it’s more patchouli. If it is frankincense that creates that peppery, smoky, dirty black scent, then it’s a very different type of frankincense than the one in Chanel’s Coromandel. (Reviewed here.) No, I think it’s more patchouli than frankincense, though Perfume Shrine (linked up above) seems to ascribe the peppery, spicy notes to a resin called “elemi.”

Either way, the linear nature of the fragrance in the early hours is a slight disappointment. The heart of cloves, cinnamon and camphor is just too strong of a constant thread. Yes, there is incense and patchouli, but it’s hard to separate them at times. Serge Noire is an extremely well-blended fragrance — so much so that the patchouli, cloves, cinnamon, and incense blend together in an extremely harmonious whole. I would have preferred something that morphed much more. And it does, later, change a little but not by much.

I thought Serge Noire was a very warm fragrance which is why reviews referencing its cold, “austere” nature were a little confusing at first glance. Austere? Is it the incense? Perfume Shrine’s review noted a definite and almost overwhelming impression of old, slightly dusky, byzantine Orthodox churches. That was my feeling for Chanel’s Coromandel, but not for Serge Noire. Others have said it’s the holiest of all holy incense fragrances, but I don’t agree with that either because it would seem to imply that Serge Noire is primarily an incense fragrance. I think it’s primarily a clove one. Which brings me to another point: cinnamon. There is definitely cinnamon here but it’s true presence comes later. To me, cinnamon is a much milder, softer, gentler and more feminine scent than cloves which is hot, not merely warm. It’s sharper, dirtier, sometimes slightly more acrid or astringent, but always more forceful.

Starting on the second hour, another note starts to rear its head. It’s the smell I had dreaded upon initially reading reviews for the perfume. It’s the smell of sweat and body odor. If this were a horse race, the clove chestnut that had led the pack, followed closely by the cinnamon sorrel, have now faded from the leader spot. They’re being edged out by a faint nose by the black patchouli stallion and its incense twin. However, coming up from the rear, is the sweaty horse whose saddle is slick with its earthy nature. And the dark woods all around the racetrack are starting to gently sway in the breeze, as if to participate in the events before it.

The award-winning, incredibly brilliant expert, Elena Vosnaki, at Perfume Shrine has a polar opposite impression:

Initially dry and spartan with the flinty, camphoreous aspect of gun powder comparable to Essence of John Galliano for Diptyque, ashes to ashes and snuffed out candles, Serge Noire by Lutens assaults the senses with the intense austerity of real frankincense and elemi. The impression is beautifully ascetic, hermetic, like an anchorite who has dwelled in a cave up in the rough mountains with only the stars as his companion in the darkest pitch of the night: the “noire” part is meditatively devoid of any ornamentation, eclipsing any pretence of frivolous prettification. The surprising transparency is evocative of the Japanese Kodo ritual rather than the denser cloud of Avignon. Those who are unitiated to the wonders of Lutens might coil away with trepidation and apprehension at this point, but much like the alarming mentholated overture of Tubéreuse Criminelle, this subsides eventually, although never quiting the scene completely.

And yet behind the caustic and mineral masculinity, a hopeful ascent of a feminine trail of lightly vanillic, ambery benzoin and sweet spice is slowly, imperceptibly rising after half an hour; like a subtly heaving bosom draped with Japanese garments or the curvaceous calligraphy of thick black ink on gaufre paper of ivory or creamy skin. It is then when cistus labdanum provides an erotic hint of sophisticated elegance in Serge Noire while the emergence of sweet spice, a touch of cinnamon, gives a burnished quality of black that is slowly bleeding into grey.

The ashen ballet in the flames, the swirls of oriental grey sing an ode to everlasting beauty, beauty under the cover of night’s rich plumage.

Perfume may be subjective, but there are few more respected experts in the perfume world than Elena Vosnaki, so her impressions of Serge Noire make me wonder why I’m getting such a different vibe. To my huge relief, Perfume Posse resolved my dilemma and made me realise that we’re BOTH right: “it just has a lot of facets that go in and out – dust, warmth, cool incense, woods.” It is coldly austere, but also red hot. (Actually, “red hots,” the cinnamon candies, are a big note in the perfume’s dry down.) It’s all incense (or, for Grain de musc, “a sizzling succession of resins”), or it’s dental chairs of camphor and stale body sweat.

In short, Serge Noire is a bit schizophrenic. It is simultaneously exactly like my review, and like that of the Perfume Shrine. Hot and dusty, or austere, cold and full of the greyJanus ashes of a dying fire — it is both things at once. Or, to go back to Janus, it wears two faces. Remember all that Lutens PR and the seemingly over-the-top, marketing flights of fancy? Well, I actually get it now. The phoenix rises from the dusty, cold ashes of death, reborn as a fiery, powerful, red-hot swirl of light and warmth, before Phoenix Risingflying off above the woods and into the cold night. It not only true, but it’s actually is pretty genius how the marketing so captured what seems to be a very intentional and deliberate ethos behind this perfume. So intentional that it reportedly took ten long years to create this scent’s contradictory nature, a scent that is Serge Lutens’ own personal favorite.

For all of Serge Noir’s vociferous opening, it definitely quietens down after about two hours. And four hours in, it’s very close to the skin and almost…. well, I wouldn’t say “subtle” but it’s definitely been tamed. It’s quiet amber and spice with the frankincense or patchouli just barely shimmering in the light. It’s cinnamon and resin. And sweat.

I did mention the rise of the sweat factor, didn’t I? Well, it becomes quite prominent in the dry-down, though I should emphasize again that the perfume is extremely close to the skin at this point. Still, after about five or six hours, I would catch a faint but definite smell of body odor. I’d been doing other things, forgotten about the perfume (yes, that actually is possible at this point) and, for a fleeting moment, thought to myself, “God, is that me?”

I like Serge Noire a lot more than I had expected to and, indeed, found the opening quite enchanting. But, after some reflection, that body odor element combines with a few other things to make this a bottle I wouldn’t buy. (If given to me, however, I’d certainly wear it on occasion. I think….)  It’s a fascinating fragrance and, on me, certainly wasn’t as “hideous,” “evil,” “horrific” and venomous as the critical reviews had led me to expect. If you’re a perfume junkie with a curious streak, I would definitely recommend buying a small vial for $3.99 at Surrender to Chance just to see what all the fuss is about. If you’re a fan of cinnamon and clove, I’d advise the same. And, honestly, you may really like it; there are certainly plenty of people who do. For everyone else, however — particularly those of a less inquisitive, bold or fool-hardy nature, or those who like the “fresh, clean” scents — I would recommend staying far, far away.

Cost: The perfume comes only in one formula, Parfum Haute Concentration, and can be purchased on the Serge Lutens website for $140 for a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle. It’s also available at other retailers, like Barney’s or Luckyscent.
Sillage: Enormous at first, before fading in the second hour and then becoming close to the skin around the fourth. But, as always, this is on me and my body consumes perfume.
Longevity: Very long lasting for a Serge Lutens fragrance, in my opinion. My prior experiences have been extremely short in duration. On me, all in all, this lasted about 5.5 hours. On others, the reports are for much longer.