Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Serge Noire by Lutens: fragrance review

Upon smelling frankincense tears slowly being burnt on charcoals in an old bronzy censer, aromatizing the air with their otherworldy smell, I never fail to be transported in a mirage, similar to the one that Serge Noire by Lutens is evoking: Smoke is rising in the air of an old, byzantine, Orthodox church, the bright light coming fragmented in colourful snippets of reds and yellows through the panelled windows; old beeswax dripping heavily on the trays with sand on which pious old women have pinched their candles, each burdened with a prayer for the soul of a loved one; antique gold chandleriers are hanging heavily from what seems like a thread over wooden pews bearing the double-faced eagle of Byzantium carved in their backs, like an eidolon; visions of brides and grooms who have stood before the altar, erect and proud, crowned according to Orthodox canon with wreaths of silver, like royalty; the hushed lone whisper of someone who has seeked solace from the unrelenting heat of a bright summer's noon into the cool marbled-floored abode.

These are not manifestations of faith or religiousness on my part, rather the spirituality which seeks the opportunity to come out upon inhaling the fragrant remnants of smoke, stucco-ed along with the old egg-paint frescoes of the saint and the martyrs on the walls. And the pyrotechnics of myriads of Easter midnight celebrations, when the sky bursts forth with all the colours of the rainbow and the intense noise of fire-crackers that exorcises the evil spirits in a pagan atavistic nod which is so intrisically ingrained into the customs of this particular little corner of the world. Darkness and Light...

Exilde for ever: Let me morne
Where nights black bird hir sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorne.

Downe vaine lights shine you no more,
No nights are dark enough for those
That in dispaire their last fortunes deplore,
Light doth but shame disclose

~Lacrymae Pavanne/Flow my tears, John Dowland

Incense in general has this almost Pavlovian quality of invoking a feeling of serenity, sadness and almost perverse elation in me.
Frankincense came into the scene of niche cults with the "Incense series" by Comme des Garcons and Passage d'Enfer by L'artisan parfumeur years ago and although it seemed it languished for a while, it knew a resurgence last summer with Andy Warhol Silver Factory by Bond No.9, an arguably interesting take and with Andy Tauer's wonderful duo of the austere Incense Extrême and the sunny Incense Rosé this past autumn.
However Serge Noire has been one fragrance lately which has managed to include every aspect of my ignus fatus, replete with the power to obliterate every other thought during its slow and lasting denouement on my skin. I had posted some earlier thoughts based on confidances by friends who had whetted my appetite but my personal, intimate relationship with Serge Noire has been a revelation.

The name derives its lineage from history: In the 19th and early 20th century, the name (la serge, feminine hence the "e" in the adjective "noire") designated a type of textile, twill of diagonal lines or ridges on both sides, made with a two-up, two-down weave, that was quite popular: a delicate variety was used for finer garments, while a stronger yarn was chosen for military clothes. The etymology derives from Greek σηρικος (σηρος means silk worm, for clothes), which gave rise to the Latin serica and the old French serge.The interesting thing is that serge has been implicated through the British textile trade monopoly via Calais and the Netherlands in wars between European nations, especially religious ones: in 1567 Calvinist refugees from the Low Countries included many skilled serge weavers, while Huguenot refugees in the early eighteenth century included many silk and linen weavers.With that at the back of our minds we might start deciphering the enigma of Serge Noire.

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.

Elements that have caught the imagination of Lutens and Sheldrake in the past (the camphor in Tubéreuse Criminelle, the ink in Sarrasins, the incense of Encens et Lavande) are merging here in what seems to be a personal declaration of faith. Rumoured to have been in the works for the past 10 years during the tenure of Chris Sheldrake at the Palais Royal, it has the seal of favouritism by Lutens himself, which makes it a personal token of identity.
I am hereby claiming it as mine as well: This is one of the best Lutens releases of recent years to be sure!

Serge Noire comes in 50ml/1.7oz Eau de Parfum Haute Concentration for 95 euros in the oblong bottles of the export line (with optional spray mechanism included) and has just launched exclusively for the Palais Royal premiere, to be then distributed by the licensed distributors from September 08.

You can read an interesting article on the Lutens genius in French in Le Point.

Pic of Monemvasia Castle steps in Greece by Kostas Katsiyannis, courtesy of ellopos.org.
Eva Green pic courtesy of au.feminin. Clip "Lacrymae Pavanne/Flow my Tears" by John Dowland, sung by
Andreas Scholl, originally uploaded by lasultanica on Youtube.


  1. Wow, helg, this sounds fantastic. A holy grail of incense holy grails. I can't wait to try it. Thank you for your beautifully written review.

  2. You're very welcome and thank you for your kind compliment.
    It is utterly beautiful, somber and mirabillis. I love it!

  3. This sounds wonderful! Encens et Lavande, of which I have only a treasured decant, is the most calming scent I own. I hope I get to smell this one at some point. Thanks for the review!

  4. OK, sister.
    YOU had me at 'heaving bosom'.
    Ah, me.

  5. Thank you Anita for stopping by :-)
    It is indeed a very special fragrance. Encens et Lavande is also fantastic: I love it too! This one is even more austere with an intriguing touch of spice in there. Transporting!

  6. Ah, I, banish the thought that I am instigating sinful desires in anyone! }-)
    It's weird in that it begins very somber, very dry and bitter and then warms slowly and delicately...

  7. Anonymous13:43

    Wow, this sounds very interesting! I absolutely long to test it in september!!

  8. Well damn now my interest is skyrocketing! Sounds absolutely interesting. I admit I have a deep love for the idea of a grey fragrance and this well sounds right down that alley.

  9. Elizabeth15:26

    Thank you for the stunning review, Helg. If the juice is even close to as good as you make it sound, it will undoubtedly become a staple in my life.

  10. Helg, how can you do this to me???
    I am hopelessly lemming this one after your magnificent review...Waiting for September will be torture!

  11. Anonymous16:57

    It's always good to hear interest in the work of Lutens, a true artist, and an incense fragrance has an intellectual air about it, so it doesn't surprise me. The opposite of the crass vulgarity of the loud fruity florals in the malls.

  12. Abigail21:31

    This was fascinating to read and I am now wondering how it will seem to me when I finally test it.
    Do you suppose it will be in line with the rest of the Comme des Garcons scents, such as Kyoto? You mention kodo, that's why I'm asking. I have to say that the comparison to the Galliano is making me fear a little. I like smoky, just not charred! LOL

  13. I was just struck at some point with a reminiscence of Coty L'Origan -- it's the carnation/clove accord. Dabbed on some Coty to make sure (the vintage, of course). Yup, it's there, though Serge Noire is much sparer and smokier.
    I find it, like you, much more sensuous than I expected from earlier descriptions. Did you try dabbing it on ? I swear the benzoin comes out first that way, as I said in my review. Weird. And magical.

  14. Wow, yet another Lutens I must try. Praying I *won't* like it so my wallet will not suffer. Thank you for the beautiful review, Helg. You're blog is fabulous and I don't comment nearly as often as I read.

  15. N,

    I am loking forward to your impressions: it might not be your thing, but you never know and a Lutens is always something that needs to be tested personally.

  16. J,

    it's performing mysterious tricks when on; it's quite dark, then warm, it has two opposing elements in there which make it very interesting.

  17. E,

    thank you for your compliment! Individual tastes come into play but even if one doesn't like it, one has to admit it's a very, very good release from Lutens! I hope you will dearly love it :-)

  18. S,

    LOL, sorry to do this to you! Although I was excited to try it out, I had a bit of a hesitation because sometimes what we covet the most lets us down because of our illogical expectations. Luckily, this dispelled any such notion!

  19. A,

    I think we agree that Lutens is an artist (and Sheldrake helped him bring this vision into life)and he is doing the opposite of the mall fragrances. And we love him for it!
    But then again -I have to say this- in his way, he is also playing the market well ;-)

  20. A,

    I do hope you get some of the same feelings I did :-)
    I wouldn't compare it to Kyoto exactly, because it's more ascetic and has less of the open air feel of the former. This one is quite dark, smoky (a bit like Galliano in the beginning, but not later), with something unique about it, a flinty aspect.

    The reason I mentioned Japan is because the black figures of Lutens are often Japonified (see my previous post on the thoughts about Serge Noire)and it also brought to my mind an image of a Japanese woman, draped in dark silks, I had seen in some Masters of Horror episode...

  21. D,

    I got more of a peppery than clove-y aspect, although I couldn't swear they didn't weave in isoeugenol in there to spice things up more.
    There is a very subtle, very refined elegance about its sensuality: it's delicate and really not bourgeois at all, doesn't go for the usual tricks, I picture it on someone who is into Nheira even!
    Having got a bottle, I sprayed and dabbed and tried all sorts of combinations: it's -each and every time- fascinating!

  22. A,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting and for your wonderful compliment.
    (I seem to have lost count: we have two Karins, two Abigails, sorry if I missed any previous comment).
    Hope you're well!

    I am afraid you have to try it out and just pray you won't like it :P

  23. Peggy11:52

    It sounds fantastic. Such a pitty a small variety of Serge is available here.:-(
    I am thinking of getting it unsniffed lol...If I 'll be able to get somewhere on-line though...

  24. Peggy,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting.
    I can't say that unsniffed is a very safe practice and certainly Lutens frags are rather risky, providing such intense sensations, but I find it is sublime, somber yet with a delicate, sensuous touch and trully one of the best to come out in recent years.

  25. Thanks so much for such a beautiful and descriptive review. I am excited and intrigued by the description and the notes. I have the utmost respect for Helg's opinions.

  26. Dear Gloria, you make me blush. Thank you for such profuse compliments.
    It made a deep impression on me and it's really good; which is always great in this line of mostly greats (they have spoiled us in the past, it seems!)

  27. Hello! I´ve been reading this blog for quite a while now, but with this review I just had to jump in and congratulate you for an amazing review, your vast culture and hability to nail these ethereal matters of perfume right at the head. This is an amazing review and the Andreas Scholl song was the cherry on top. I love this Serge Lutens, although at first I was actually scared by its strength and solemnity. It´s a very profound and almost spiritual scent. It feels like an old medieval French church, calm and dark, full of wisdom and strange smells. It´s just so solemn I wouldn´t know when to use it, although I´d love to.

  28. Adolfo,

    I am probably late in replying but thanks ever so much for all your wonderful compliments. What can I say, I agree with you on this fragrance of mystical and somber quietitude, of scorched spirits trailing up above...perhaps it should be a fragrance of introspective moments and reading beneath huge oak trees or beside a blazing fire in the cold of winter.
    And of course I am so happy that the Andreas Scholl cantata is resonating with you. It's my favourite rendition of the !amazing~ piece! :-)

    Hope to see you often!


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