Monday, September 3, 2007

Sarrasins by Serge Lutens: perfume review

~by guest writer Carmencanada

It is rumoured that soon Serge Lutens will relinquinsh the aromatic business and focus on his makeup line, hence the title of the review. Enjoy!


A la Nuit, launched in 2000, seemed so definitive a rendition that it was described on the Makeup Alley forum by Tania Sanchez (co-author, with Luca Turin, of a perfume guide to be published in 2008), as “death by jasmine”? It would seem as though Lutens had an afterthought about the way in which this headiest of the heady white flower notes could be treated. And why not? If it weren’t for the simultaneous release of Louve in the export line, itself a tamer reworking of the non-export 1998 Rahät Loukhoum, the issue of Lutens’s inspiration, now that his partner-in-composition Christopher Sheldrake has gone on to assist Jacques Polge at Chanel, wouldn’t be so worrisome. But, though Sheldrake is said to be pursuing his work with Lutens, there seems to be something seriously amiss in this pioneering, uncompromising, profoundly idiosyncratic house.

Sarrasins is quite a lovely scent, actually. First word on it alluded to a more saturated version of The Different Company’s Jasmin de Nuit, a spice-laced, transparent jasmine with notes of cardamom, star anise and cinnamon. And that seemed like a logical step for Lutens: to wed the soliflore to the spices he has been exploring in his recent, export-line Chypre Rouge and Rousse, as well as in the non-export Mandarine Mandarin.

But spices are never more than alluded to – the sweaty pong of cumin, perhaps, or the cold-hot burst of cardamom, clutched to death in jasmine’s cloying embrace. Sarrasins is essentially a big jasmine embellished by animalic notes – this is how the Lutens sales assistants characterize it when asked in which way it differs from A la Nuit. An extremely tantalizing, Dzing-like, dirty-salty whiff of the feline – civet, said the SA when I mentioned it – creeps out after a few minutes on the skin. Some ten minutes later, it is joined by musk, both the softer version developed in Clair de Musc and the skankier one that made the barbaric, iconic Muscs Kublaï Khan the king of the animal fragrances. But this hint of the feral never goes beyond the whiff; jasmine’s indolic leanings towards the shithouse, which should be exasperated by the claimed adjunction of a civet-like compound, are never assuaged. The big cat is shooed out by a note that could only be described as slightly petrol-like – characteristic of jasmine-saturated compositions like Joy – and that could be the “ink” note alluded to in the press release. The deep purple tint of the juice itself, perhaps a tribute to Arabic calligraphy, emphasizes the reference. But it doesn’t seem quite enough to do to jasmine what the ground-breaking Tubéreuse Criminelle did for its namesake flower: snatch the camphor-menthol notes of the tuberose absolute and push them to the fore in a jarringly seductive assault on the nose. The very knowledgeable perfume historian Octavian Sever Coifan, in his 1000 fragrances blog, states that he distinctly recognizes the same “very nice jasmine base” in Sarrasins than in other recent launches.

Granted, not all of the Lutens-Sheldrake compositions have been shockers: Fleurs de Citronnier, Clair de Musc, Santal Blanc, Daim Blond, to name a few, all conceived for the more commercial export line, are fairly tame, unlike the Palais-Royal exclusives and their flamboyant baroque style. The principle of Lutens’s most spectacular achievements was to exacerbate a note’s characteristics – the camphor in tuberose, the cold earthiness of iris, the dustiness of patchouli, the bitterness of oak, the piss-like ammonia of honey – until they nearly toppled over into ugliness. The Lutens wear you, rather than you wear them. They exist entirely on their own terms: like the mythical palace he is said to be eternally embellishing in Marrakech, and which almost no-one has seen (or had seen the last time I was in Morocco), they exude solipcistic aloofness. Olfactory exercises in the re-creation of a vanished Oriental realm, they are cruel genies in a bottle, hard to conquer – as American aficionados have long and bitterly complained of – and not rewarding to all.

Now it seems that Lutens, retreating further into the rarefied atmosphere of this realm, is unable to send his stately decrees all the way to the Palais-Royal. They reach us muffled, like afterthoughts – Gris Clair of Encens et Lavande, Louve of Rahät Loukhoum and now, in a puzzling reversal of the export/exclusive interplay, Sarrasins of A la Nuit...

Perhaps Serge Lutens feels that he has said all he had to say in his “chemical poems” (to quote Luca Turin’s beautiful expression). Perhaps the rumours are true, and he will soon conclude his masterful opus. Let’s just hope that his swansong is more definitive than the delicious, but not irreplaceable Sarrasins.

Pic of calligraphy by Iranian artist Hassan Massoudy with the caption "Don't spend two words if one is sufficient for you." (Arab proverb). It comes from


  1. The petrol and ink note in the Sarrasins comes from p-cresol and derivates. They are present in natural jasmin absolute but also in ylang and narcissus. Their smell is animalic/dirty/ink/metro with all kind of shades. It's not only indol, which by the way is very important in the lilly of the valley smell. That ink aspect might come also from castoreum (a similar "ink" in the latest Lalique the masculine one).
    I think it's really hard to do a new and good jasmine fragrance because this theme was so used and abused by perfumers in the past 100 years.
    A la nuit could be seen as a mix between a jasmin field (the Jasmophore Firmenich idea) and a classical lilly of the valley idea with a lot of benzyl acetate. :))
    I heard that Mr. Lutens and Chris Sheldrake (before his departure to Chanel) did quite a lot of fragrances... so, there are quite other surprises to come in the next years.

  2. I always found A la Nuit horribly animalic but to me Sarrasins is just a full bodied delicious fruity sweet jasmine, I really fail to get indolic and dirty notes at all here. It feels more complex, crisp and leathery in the winter, the heat and humidity seem to enhance the fruityness.


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