Have you ever lost sleep over the notion of an unattainable ideal? Have you longed and ached for that which you have not even experienced? Are you like the hero in Steppenwolf , a lone soul in search of the sublime revelation of self in the whirlwind of a crumbling civilization? Those questions might ring silly to someone who hasn't known the pang of desire that a beautiful perfume stirs in the soul. And Nombre Noir is one such beautiful but unattainable perfume.
In a revelation of Lachesis I happened upon a little stash of it out of the blue; the elusive Kooh-i-Noor that had been escaping me for long. Or so I thought. Years passed since the last batch of this black glove has been produced and I wonder how much of its initial beauty has been smeared like mascara after a hard night partying. I will probably never know. What I do know is that it was immediately and unknownigly admired by my discerning companion who proclaimed it “beautiful and haunting”. It is just my luck that he always loves the rare and expensive things, I guess. For what is worth I will cherish the little I do have and not break my neck in vain.
Nombre Noir was created in 1981 by nose Jean-Yves Leroy, one of the in-house perfumers for the Japanese brand Shiseido, under the artistic direction of Serge Lutens and Yusui Kumai, aiming to create their first "western" fragrance. Lutens chose an extremely expensive natural osmanthus and a synthetic aromachemical, a big-stock damascone molecule of rosy-woody with prune. In The Emperor of Scent, Turin called it "one of the five great perfumes of the world" and lamented its passing, creating a stampede on Ebay for the elusive golden juice of olfactory paradise.
The perfume became infamous for its breakthrough packaging designed in collaboration among Serge Lutens, Shuichi Ikeda and Masataka Matsubara. "The most unremittingly, sleekly, maniacally luxurious packaging you can imagine: a black octagonal glass Chinese bottle nestled in exquisitely folded black origami of the most sensuous standard."
Despite its high retail price, however, Nombre Noir was losing money because of the packaging according to rumours. And then it disappeared, to be lamentably discontinued shortly thereafter. The real reason seems to be because the high percentage of damascones contained contributed to the perfume being photo-sensitising.
Damascones are potent aromacemicals synthesized in the lab through a difficult procedure that is reflected in their price. Because of that and their diffusive odour profile they are usually used with restraint, except for cases when the perfumer wants to make a point, like in Poison with its exagerration of alpha and beta damascone or indeed in Nombre Noir. Alpha-damascone is rosy floral with a fruity aspect atop a camphorous note and winey nuances while beta-damascone has tobacco shades along with plummy sweetness.
Alas their deterioration upon sunlight is another reason they are usually kept in minute quantities in perfume compositions. Except for Nombre Noir. And that was the death toll on it.
The furore started with Turin's quote and perfume lovers the world over were losing precious sleep over not having experienced this ingenious marvel of nature and lab mechanics. Everyone who followed the perfume community had heard about it but they thought it exiled in distant Peoria. It made seldom appearences on Ebay, sometimes in a faux costume masquerading as the authentic thing, other times its true self in all its brilliance to elevated prices that could be brought back to their rightful culprit: Luca Turin.
But such pathos might have been excused in his case. As he revealed, it was no ordinary encounter:
“The fragrance itself was, and still is, a radical surprise. A perfume, like the timbre of a voice, can say something quite independent of the words actually spoken. What Nombre Noir said was ‘flower’. But the way it said it was an epiphany. The flower at the core of Nombre Noir was half-way between a rose and a violet, but without a trace of the sweetness of either, set instead against an austere, almost saintly back-ground of cigar-box cedar notes. At the same time, it wasn’t dry, and seemed to be glistening with a liquid freshness that made its deep colors glow like a stained-glass window.~Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent
The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious. There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette’s writing style in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with, and that wonderful French word farouche, which can mean either shy or fierce or a bit of both”.
Years later, the elusive was found again and the spark of this love was rekindled. But his feelings changed from infatuation to reverence upon meeting its true self:
“Nombre Noir was still beautiful, God knows, and I could see what I had loved, a sort of playful fierceness unequalled in fragrance before or since, but I was no longer in thrall. Egged on by the cruelty that makes us dismember what we cannot truly love, I sent it off for analysis. When I read the list of ingredients with their proportions, I felt as Röntgen must have done when he first saw the bones in his wife's hand: no longer the beautiful, but the sublime. At Nombre Noir's core, a quartet of resplendent woody-rosy damascones, synthetics first found in rose oil forty years ago. They break down in sunlight, hence the nastiness. But the secret was a huge slug of hedione, a quiet, unassuming chemical that no-one noticed until Edmond Roudnitska showed with Eau Sauvage (1966) that its magic kiss could put back the dew on dry flowers. Knowledge may be power, but power is not love.”~Luca Turin, Perfume Notes
To me the fragrance of Nombre Noir is akin to a sonorous sonata that is echoed across a vast hall full of oxidised-metal (so as to look dark) chandeliers. There is the high ceiling of cedary notes, like those in Feminite du Bois but scaled a bit down, that keeps the atmosphere somber, yet the plush of the velvet cushions and the brocade curtains lend a baroque fruitiness to the proceedings, like dried raisins and prunes left out for all to savour, not unlike the hyperbole that is Poison by Dior. The sublime rose accord is laced with a boozy and tea-smokey note, restrained and not old fashioned at all, recalling to mind the unusual treatment that was destined to it in the exlusive Lutens scent Rose de Nuit. I can see how this could be worn like nocturnal ammunition against the crassness of a crumbling civilization.
In an unprecedented show of appreciation for perfume and generosity towards all those who do love scents dearly, I am offering you the chance to sample this elusive scent for free: the sample will be miniscule, alas, because I have little myself and because I predict that I will not be able to score some ever again. However it will allow one lucky fellow to not lose sleep over Nombre Noir anymore. And that my friends is priceless...
I will accept entries in the comments till the end of the month, so if you have friends you love, better be quick about telling them. The winner will be drawn on 1st February and announced shortly thereafter. Let the Moirae cast the dice!
Art photography by Chris Borgman courtesy of his site. Nombre Noir ad courtesy of autourdeserge.