Monday, September 12, 2011

Serge Lutes De Profundis: fragrance review & draw

If Charles Baudelaire or Oscar Wilde (pleading with Lord Alfred Douglas from within his jail) are references both in plain view in the new Serge Lutens fragrance De Profundis, and they themselves relied on this, their posthumus reputation might be rather lacklustre. Whether it is fatigue or overfamiliarisation, the olfactory seraglio at Palais Royal has began showing signs of tiredness, despite the vivid, novel colour of the latest perfume which shines in its beautiful bell jar like a bright amethyst. You can almost hear the cry of the 130th Psalm "De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te, Domine" for all the drama in front of your eyes! Sadly, experiencing the fragrance by one's nose is underwhelming, after such build-up, promising the scent of death, no less.  
De Profundis is a piercing, sharp, dusty and at the same time aldehydic "clean" floral that petters out to woods and a little fruity violet, rather than the dark, dangerously sexy or earthy, medieval scent suggested by its apothecarial look.

Just take a look at the official ad copy (or skip it), composed in the usual cryptic style which reveals less than it suggests:

"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.
If they end up in garlands in the Holy Land or the Galapagos Islands or on flower floats at the Annual Nice Carnival, so much the better!
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!
In French, the words beauty, war, religion, fear, life and death are all feminine, while challenge, combat, art, love, courage, suicide and vertigo remain within the realm of the masculine.
Clearly, Death is a Woman. Her absence imposes a strange state of widowhood. Yet beauty cannot reach fulfilment without crime. The chrysanthemum is the sole pretext for writing these lines.
Turning grave sites held in perpetuity over to Life – a familiar of these haunts – the chrysanthemum invites Death to leave the cemetery and offer us its flower. De Profundis clamavi." [translation by Fragrantica]

But how did we get to here? L'Eau Serge Lutens seems like a seperate entity in the canon, both in context and in smell, and for that reason was given leniency, even if it alienated much of the fan base; and while Boxeuses conversely recycled the familiar in a most pleasant way, I was rather hesitant into jumping for a full bottle of Serge's last, violent and incongruous release, Vitriol d'Oeillet. This was a first. Not jumping up & down for De Profundis, later on, sounded like sacrilege! But the expectations were set too high: Baudelaire is too much of a decadent aesthete to reference with impunity; Eros & Thanatos has been explored as an idea by scholars for millenia; and a scentscape inspired by death is a risky bet ~ the church has the patent down pat after all. Lutens took the All Saints tradition of taking chrysanthemums (autumnal flowers) to graves and span it into composing a floral that would get inspired by death.

 De Profundis olfactorily resembles a dusty, powdery yet sharp scent of herbal tea and flowers, with a smattering of honeysuckle, lily of the valley and greenish notes (green jasmine, green lily) on top; not melacholic chrysanthemums promised by the ad copy, but rather the aftermath of the funeral, despite the closeness with the autumn blossom.
What is more unexpected is that the bouquet of green floral notes very soon gives way to a "blanched" soapy musk resembling Galaxolide (but not quite! what is it?), and aldehydic nuances, reminiscent of the worst memories of L'Eau Serge Lutens and at the same time like bottled light, ozonic, lifting upwards and upwards...like a soul to the light?
Whereas the soapy concept was thick as thieves with the humorous, ironic allusion to "clean" in L'Eau as a sign of defiance in an era when perfume connoisseurs are embalming themselves in thick resins, stinky florals or bitter pharmaceutical-worthy oud notes to prove their mettle, in De Profundis the trick doesn't quite work again: The synthetic feel of the powdery note is far off the luxurious iris of Bas de Soie (which still denoted a classy sexiness) and at the same time it lacks the nuanced greyness of the majestic and unsurpassable Iris Silver Mist. Amidst it all, a fruity scent surfaces, enhanced by alpha methyl ionone (a recognisable violet note), giving a mildly sweetish, pleasant backdrop which bears a hint of familiarity with the previous Lutens fragrances. Although seemingly a loud perfume upon spraying, in its rather screechy projection upon first spray, De Profundis mellows into a soft woody skin scent which doesn't last as -usually- expected.

Evaluating a Lutens creation in less than stellar terms leaves me with a certain disillusionment, which is painful to experience. For more than 15 years, Lutens used to instantly transport me into imaginary travels atop a magic carpet which seemed to continuously unfold new motifs, to lull me into a reverie that united the mysticism of the East with the classiness and chic of the West. Perched, as I am, between two worlds, from a geographical point of view, this unison spoke deeply to my soul. I'm hoping that the line will find again its axis, but with dearest Serge reaching 70 it looks like it is a precarious, foreshadowing prospect and I find myself sitting on a church pew like a kid, confused with the world and eager to catch at straws...

Official notes for Serge Lutens De Profundis: chrysanthemum, dahlia, lily, violet, earthy notes.

Serge Lutens De Profundis comes in the familiar bell jar bottles of Eau de Parfum available only in Paris at Les Salons de Palais Royal (It's part of the exclusive line), 75ml for 120 euros. This year there will be two limited edition engraved bottles which cost significantly (significantly!) more (We're talking upwards of 1000 euros here): there will be only 7 of each bottle design for sale, reportedly.

For our readers, 2 samples of De Profundis, out of my own stash, will be given. Tell us, what would you like to smell in a "death perfume"?

Movie still of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense by M.Night Shyamalan, Music set to the psalm 130 Arvo Pärt


  1. Thank you for this review , although it being the second one I've read describing this latest creation in disappointed terms does indeed not bode well for the future at the house of Lutens... So far, a fragrance referencing death, decay and Baudelaire that I much enjoy is Charogne by ELO.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear of your disillusionism (is that even a word?) Are you sure it's Serge? I wonder if the influx of perfume releases EVERY DAY(!) has everyone's noses desensitized? This foggy haze of disillusionment seems to be the trend in most of the fragrance blogs I read - and I have even found myself less and less interested in perfume releases - even from the "greats". In fact, the most interesting fragrances seem to be coming from independent perfumers - not the "niche" lines ("refinement" seems to be what one gets from "niche", not originality...).

    Do you suppose this is a sign of the decline of SL?

  3. Anonymous15:58

    I think a perfume to remind death should be incensey, musty and earthy. Plus maybe those funeral flowers. Lily and tuberose. Thanks for entering me in the drawing! Alica - alica@cleis.net

  4. Camilla16:15

    Is it true that this is SL's last opus?
    I hope not, especially after reading your less than stellar review!
    I find the concept of life to be much more intriguing than that of death, perfume wise, but I was intrigued by this new SL and can't wait to it - the visuals are really appealing.
    I already found (and own) a perfume that smells of death - Fracas. I love it, yet it possesses a funereal quality that I find very pronounced. Fracas for me is the eros-tanatos of perfumes: the sweet warmth of tender skin and the sinister chill from the otherworld.

  5. A death perfume should smell like lily, datura, myrrh, oakmoss and wood.

  6. Laurinha,

    oh, I don't know.... I might think differently one release later a year from now, you know. But after L'Eau, the "commonality" (though refined) of Cellophane, the puzzlement of Vitriol and now this, I'm starting to be sceptical and I am a die-hard Lutens fans, please note.

    I should revisit Charogne and note down my impressions! :-)

  7. Marko,

    did I write that?? I was posting and editing at the same time. It's fixed I hope, now.
    You certainly have a point there. I find myself bored to the point of not even wanting to test new things; or perhaps, I'm less enthusiastic as I used to be ten years ago when the niche sector really caught on. Possibly we're on the same page, you and I.

    I certainly hope that whoever continues the line of SL (if at all, and I firmly believe a decent death is more respectable than a mediocre life) does their best; the line was on the vanguard and I'd hate to see it lagging behind.

  8. Alica,

    my thinking originally went along those lines you describe. Then I had some other thoughts, but I'm leaving them for a seperate post, maybe. ;-)
    You're included!

  9. Camilla,

    I don't have any info if this is his last opus, but metaphorically this talk of death for two releases which are otherwordly and ghost-like are foreboding. I certainly hope that the line picks up again and continues to present challenging and exciting new scents. But that's up to him.

    Fracas as a funereal scent is precious! I love your point of view! Yes, you're on to something there.

  10. K,

    are you enlisting a perfumer for that one? Sounds very good!

  11. Wamp womp. Sad to see his reputed last perfume is a stinker. :(

  12. Dane,

    to be 100% factual, I haven't officially heard of it being his last perfume. (It might feel like it to some, though)
    Remember: Even as far back as Sarassins there was talk of a retirement. Apparently, that didn't happen. Who knows.

  13. so sorry to see it doesn't work- I had such high hopes for this one...
    I would like to smell dampness and cold and incense for a death perfume- and something sad all to the end, without any hope still, I would like very much to try this, please, enter me the draw

  14. Carnations, Roses & Dirt.

  15. Anonymous17:37

    If dahlia's don't smell, maybe this scent is built around dahlia. This is the third time I have heard that this scent doesn't last. Sadly, my criteria for a death perfume are what was promised in the pre-release press, crysanthemum with something smokey/churchy/mausoleumy, in the periphery of perception.

    Please enter me.

    -- one sad Nikki

  16. Hmmm, I think ash, dirt and candle wax maybe? My Catholic upbringing is really showing :)

  17. Hmm, the fragrance doesn't sound much like death to me at all. I envision a death perfume smelling dry, bitter, and resinous, with the contrast of aldehydes and, perhaps, incense marking both the decent of the body into the ground and the flight of the soul upward. I think there is a lot that could be done with this concept, but from your review it seems Lutens missed the mark in just about all directions.

    That said, I would love the chance to give this a sniff!

  18. Beth G.17:55

    I would love to give this a try, even though you seem crestfallen.
    To me death would smell of loud florals, like lilies. Because that's what I have been smelling in funerals. Associations...

  19. Very interesting conception.When we talking about death we imagine something dark foggy and by the description of the scent it contain earthy notes,which is related also with tne end of our lifes ...dust to dust.But in all the dark aspects, white flowers,cold notes ozonic and earthy notes,related with the image of funera,in the moment of death there is a moment of innocence,personal moment,witch I would like to find in this fragrance,literally of course.

  20. "What if the hearse were taking the deceased,[...]altar boys, priest, undertaker, beadle and gravediggers to some sort of celebration where they could indulge gleefully in vice?" Blech, what a picture. Octavian Coifan didn't like this either (big understatement). Oh well, let us enjoy the SL creations we do love.

  21. I have actually never tried a Serge Lutens before, but would love the opportunity. I do like aldehydic florals... so maybe I would enjoy it at least on that level! Not sure I wanted a 'death perfume,' anyway!

  22. Anonymous18:52

    Dear E,

    I think "death" perfumes have been done, and done well, already. Two that come to mind are Etro's Messe de Minuit and Guerlain's Djedi. Death smells like dust, herbs, incense and beeswax but a good death perfume also needs to be cosy and skin-like in the end; like birth, death is ulimately a very intimate experience. The dark, macabre side of me would love to try this new "death" perfume, regardless of the general diappoinment.


  23. Stephan19:06

    I hope that the news about the retirement of Serge Lutens are but rumours. What should a death perfume smell like? Well, death is the cessation of the sensorial capabilities like vision, smell etc. It's where the gateways of the senses are broken. To depict this in a scent, one should maybe go in the direction of L'antimatière.

  24. I've never really considered what would make up a "death" perfume, but I guess for me it would have to contain incense and lily. Thanks for the draw!

  25. london20:07

    Wood and earth. Dusty and dry. I'm not sure why this would be a good thing though!

  26. Anonymous20:28

    I am delurking to say I have followed the reviews & news with a sense of awe and biting-nails-anticipation and I'm curious to try this perfume, especially after your reviews. So please enter me in the draw!

    To me death is serene & quiet, a trail of incense smoke and nothing else.


  27. I've always thought of Iris Silver Mist being a death perfume. But in a kind, gently ending your miseries kind of way.

  28. Maureen21:24

    Lilies and incense. I really like pretty fragrances, but the darker side of me would love to try this fragrance...not sure about the chrysanthymums...like the flowers, but not crazy about the smell. please enter me in the draw...thanks.

  29. I am quite intrigued by the talk of the last perfume by Octavian as well. In any case, I have heard there will be a L'Eau 2 coming next spring, so literally speaking De Profundis will not be the last one.

  30. Mimi G23:31

    Quite depressing to think of a death perfume. I think notes of lily, dirt and myrrh would be appropriate but so off putting to think of death in a perfume sense.

  31. Sybarite01:39

    To me a perfume representing death would be foremost quite "cold", with little if any warmth at all. But also ashy, dusty & earthy.
    And due to the fact that Iris roots are found buried underground I'd definitely use some Iris in the heart too, (even if just for the symbolism.)
    As for other flowers, (the actual smell of ;o)) Chrysanths would be fine, but I'd use Lilies & Carnations too (as I always associate these with funerals even more so). All on a base of mossy woods and a trail of Incense smoke to end.
    ~ Please enter me in the draw. Thanx !

  32. Oh I think my previous comment got lost :(

    I'll retype it because I am really interested in this draw ;) I've heard different things: you ended up being disappointed, another writer started out not being enchanted yet ended that way...

    I have personal memories of the smells of death from the times when it came close to my family. Most of them wouldn't be fit for perfume except lavender. My Nana's death smelled of lavender. When Mama and I were going through Nana's things, the smell of dried lavender in her closet haunted us. I still don't like the smell of lavender straight up. Maybe lavender and incense would make me think of death in perfume.

  33. A death perfume should smell like the frozen tundra. No suggestion of heaven or hell, no particular comfort offered, no life flourishing anywhere. Just iced-over, permafrosted earth and mountains.

  34. Death perfume? I am thinking of earth/soil note, champaca/magnolia, jasmin, rose and pandan water. these notes are really associate with grave and funeral in Indonesia.

  35. Lily and incense would work for me. Notes that would create an earthy and cold effect. Passage d'enfers would fit perfectly into that description IMO.

  36. Damp earth, wood, chrysanthems, frankincense and myrrh, charcoal...

  37. I am really discouraged by all the mediocre reviews on this one but I have to try it for myself.

    What I associate with a death perfume is iris (of course), acacia probably with its sweet, leathery smell, incense in the volatile way it was done in Serge Noire, and a touch of cold stone as we have seen it in Gris Clair and revisited it in L' Eau. Oh, I forgot the violets! And maybe some rose.

  38. How utterly depressing on every single level.

    I think a death perfume should smell like Messe de Minuit with a spritz of Diorissimo. Please enter me in the draw; now you've got me curious.

  39. Hm,lilies and violets I think, and earth maybe. I' ve only tried Bois de Violette so far of the SL scents, so I don't have that much basis for comparison when it comes to earlier SL perfumes. I'd like to be included in the draw though!

  40. Thank you for the review - it is disappointing when the presentation doesn't match the content.

    But please enter me in the draw - this is an intriguing challenge.

    Things I would like to see in a "death perfume"

    Lilies and Carnations - tribute Frankincense and Myrrh - prayers
    Oakmoss and Vetiver - earth
    Galbanum - hope/renewal

    I hope I win - thank you for doing this draw.

  41. My comment seems to have got lost as well! My answer was Roses, Myrrh and Cedar, with a rounded dry down, like Arpege which maintains a sort of severity while also being embracing, full and complex...

  42. Sorry to those who lost their comments and had to repost. I find that Blogger sometimes acts up, especially when the servers are very busy. I apologise and please know I'm counting your entries to the draw.

  43. Cypresses, because they guard the cemeteries.

  44. How like a Georges Bataille short story! A deathly perfume: ash, not decay, and cold minerally marble. Smoky iris?

  45. Great review, thanks.

    I wonder, was Christopher Sheldrake the perfumer for this one?

  46. I think a "death" perfume should be lily based because of the flower's historical association with death. This is especially true for the arum lily. Not the most original idea I'm afraid, but what can I say?

  47. I was pondering a while, thinking that death has meaning too wide to be expressed in one concise idea which a perfume should be, found out that death of a relative or our beloved dog are very specific occasions that cannot be added up. I found out that chrysanthemums, lilies or cypresses just don't have the funerary meaning for me - allergy to cypress pollen means that I'm a naturalized Mediterranean, which is sort of positive in a bizarre way, lilies are the colourful barstuds that sometimes bloom like mad and sometimes they're on strike and chrysanthemums add a splash of colour to the autumn garden. We're a weird family, contrary to local traditions, we don't really mourn on All Souls Day, we grab a bottle of wine and this year, I've promised to make some skull-shaped cookies, and then we hang around the family grave, or rather a cenotaph, chatter about deceased relatives and pour wine for them and people look at us weird. So, it would be guaiacol, mint and vetiver for the cold days, some properly smoking cedar just because, and then warm spices - vanilla, cinnamon... but that's not death either.

    I have a book called something like Decadent gardening. There's a chapter on creating a particularly poisonous garden. Belladonna, yew, opium poppy... Such a mix would make a good death perfume.

  48. I think I would like to smell emotions in a "death perfume". Those strange, sad feeling when friends and family are gathered in a cold stone building to take fare-well with a loved one.

    I've gotten the impression that this scent has managed to capture those emotions.

  49. Perhaps a death perfume should smell of myrrh and woods-perhaps pine for the coffin.

  50. I think I would like to smell earth, resins and woods in a death perfume. I always want to smell earth, resins and woods.

  51. In a perfume in some way inspired by death, I'd like to find some humor, some hope, or some sex. Without one of these, though it could be intellectually interesting, it wouldn't be something I would like to wear. A good example is actually CB I Hate Perfume's Black March. There is a graveyard feel to that perfume, but at the same time it's like a turning point and it's quite hopeful (maybe that hyacinth note). For humor a twist of something like absinthe, or something mentholated, cold, or chemical layered with warmer, more human notes, and definitely the strongest "salty" note manageable. For sex, a dirty musk, mixed with smells of dry decay, not rotting wet decay, which I don't usually find as enjoyable, more like piles of dead, dry leaves, hay or moss or earth.

  52. class flirt15:06

    pls add me to the draw, tho' primarily out of curiosity. BPAL makes some fabulous death scents...one of the more fascinating represents a formaldehyde sort of scent...green and glowing. real cemetery stuff!

  53. zeram103:07

    "Death"? Perhaps the smell of sweat on wood, invoking memories of well used rosary beads. Toss in a bit of "saltiness" for tears of sorrow. Please enter me in the draw.

  54. Thanks for the review...
    A "death perfume" for me should smell like cool incense, lilies and a bit of damp earth....too gothic? :o)

  55. Funnily enough, if I were to imagine a death-scent, from a western perspective, I'd expect a dry, green, aldehydic, earthy floral fragrance. No incense or wax. Just the smell of an open grave slowly being filled with falling dirt after the last mourners have left. And after all, given that formaldehyde is used in embalming, how could you not put that in? Even if only as a darkly humourous accent.

    From an eastern context (Hindu/Buddhist), I'd expect a transparent wood fragrance, laced with marigold, rice (iris/violet), musk and smoke. The smells of wooden pyres burning - and garlands of non-sweet flowers. Even a watery feeling, perhaps, as water plays an important role in the last rituals.

  56. chronos20:47

    I don't know whether my post is going to make it through moderation, but I'll take a chance and write what I have to say - I may be deprived of the ability to use abstract thinking, but I can't imagine how you would like to wear a fragrance that smells of death if you have ever lost someone you loved. I've seen corpses of my most beloved ones and just the smell of the soap that their bodies had been washed before they were buried still makes me gag, let alone other smells that accompanied the day I last saw them. The smell of death has nothing appealing in it - first sick bodies, then rotting bodies, funeral makeup, wet earth. Why would you like to smell like death in the first place? I find it highly inappropriate. It's sad. Or maybe you're just so lucky. So far.

  57. Chronos,

    of course your comment made it through "moderation". I only ever delete spam comments (those are many) or those which offend other readers directly (a scarce occassion). I'm proud to say this is one of the very few venues where quite harsh criticism on myself has flown freely without any edit on a couple of occassions. We don't do censorship here.

    Then again your comment isn't criticism to me personally, really. The smell of death was the artistic vision of Lutens himself, as described in the launch material. He wanted to evoke a Goth fragrance, filled perhaps with the E.A.Poe ideal of "nothing being more romantic than a young woman dieing". His little riddles, for anyone familiar with the line, are a typical part of his little game with the perfume lovers who buy/wear/sample his fragrances. Whether that's a clever (or even digestable) idea for a perfume is matter for discussion with the creator; we're only here to review the end result.

    Alas, I have indeed lost very precious people and the experience has been traumatic, to say the least. But I don't recall the smells associated with the events following those instances with horror, but rather with the poignancy and sweet melancholia reserved for things that scattered like dust in the wind. And I try to keep the memories of the scents emited while living close by at heart at all times...

  58. I forgot to add that the people I mentioned died suddenly, without any protracted disease. The "indignity" of that was spared them and perhaps this is why I don't have your own bad associations.

    At any rate, thanks for commenting!


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