Friday, January 25, 2008

Nocturnal Demons ~Nombre Noire by Shiseido and Lutens: fragrance review

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.
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”.
~Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent

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.


  1. I loved reading this - informative and lyrical at once. I'd love to try this. Sometimes I am lucky to have in my collection of miniatures long lost scents but not this one. Maybe I get lucky!


  2. Dear D,

    thank you for your kind words. Your mini collection must be lovely to see, I'm sure.
    Since NN has become a legend, I gather that having your curiosity satisfied is worth it.

    I wish you the best of luck!

  3. Please count me in!
    I've had Nombre Noir in my eBay favourites since reading Mr. Turin's impressions in his original blog, always hoping, hoping.

    Thank you for this opportunity.


  4. Anonymous13:58

    Even without the lure of the draw (please put my name in the hat!) I would have had to write and comment on a fascinating and beautiful review, thanks so much! Of course, ever since reading Mr Turin's review I have dreamed of Nombre Noir but what I have really enjoyed reading about this time are the damascones (and hedione which seems to my mind a star note seeing as it crops up in my beloved Diorella and other beauties). Is there a book on scent molecules for the nerdy (like me)? Interesting that there appears to be a distant cousin still living in the Palais Shiseido. I had a sample of RdN, now gone, and I know I will buy a bottle when/if I get to Paris.

  5. Anonymous14:17

    dear e. ,
    great review :) !

    i´ve never smelled nombre noir, but of course was always curious about it, so please include me in the drawing.

    i´d like to know if i´m among the ones who will swoon over it. there´s so much written about it, but i must admit, up to now, i was always a little bit disappointed by the shiseido releases. not that know many, but for example féminité du bois didn´t impress me much :o
    another one (discontinued, i think) is vocalise & it´s so water-y & bland, perhaps typical for the japanese market?
    i read (& know through some japanese friends) that they don´t like heavy smelling products, everything has to be very lightly scented.

    but i´m always willing to learn & perhaps the mysterious nombre noir will win me over ;)

  6. Don't need in the draw, I have some in the extrait, which I wish could could compare to the edp, but I seem to have mislaid my teensy bottle of the edp.

    We smelled this at the Osmotheque, where they have whipped up a fresh batch. :) All of the originals are missing some things inthe top that the Osmotheque's version has on the open.

    I do think that Rose de Nuit is a kissing cousin of the NN, but there's more booze in NN than Rose de Nuit. Miller Harris' Rose en Noir bears some similarities as well, less booze, more rose, not as pathologically dark.

    Love them all, and it's definitely the way I like my roses served up. :)

  7. Please enter me in the draw Helg. You get perfume sainthood for this act of generosity for a fragrance with true Holy Grail status. I admit I have always been intrigued by the mention of the use of osmanthus in this. What can I say I am a follower of that little golden flower.

  8. Anonymous16:35

    Puh-leeze, can I be in the draw? After this review I just HAVE to smell it!

  9. M,

    you're in! I know it is something one hopes for, don't I know it...

  10. Donanicola,

    thanks so much for your wonderful compliment.

    It was very interesting doing a little research on the reason behind NN's discontinuation, I came up against several versions.
    I can't say that I did smell hedione, though (which is a clear, green jasmine-vine aroma), but since LT mentions it in his breakdown analysis by GC, it must be so.

    I do hope you get to get your bottle of Rose de Nuit. BTW, do mail me ( I have some suggestions for you that the space here does not allow.

    Of course you're in!

  11. Thanks dear C!

    With such mythical status, I bet the expectations are gigantic. Whatever, you're in so I hope you will get your chance to sample it.
    I have read about the Japanese myself that they do prefer lighter scents (they view westerners as smelling heavy and vulgar), hence many separate launches by companies just for Asia.
    I have also read they prefer to display (it's almost a status symbol) rather than wear the perfume on their skin!

    NN is your typical Japenese perfume though and this is what I meant when I mentioned that it was their first "western" fragrance.
    Féminité du bois is more challenging, because of the higher spice and cedar content. I find RdN closer to NN actually.

  12. Patty, dear, thanks for stopping by and for your interesting comment.

    I am very interested in what you say: it is what I suspected, that we can't be sure how the top notes smell like exactly, as the last batches of this perfume were made more than 20 years ago...
    Do you know if the Osmothéque/Kerleo recreated it based on a formula provided by Shiseido (?

    I completely agree with you that there is a curious boozy note in NN and that RdN is cusiously close to it minus the aforementioned note.Rose en Noir I haven't tested yet, but I appreciate your input, as I'm sure readers will as well.

    I'm all for "bastard" roses too; the plain kind doesn't do anything for me usually.

  13. Jen,
    thank you dear.

    Perfume sainthood has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? (I am joking of course...)
    I can't say that my stash (at least) is too full of osmanthus, but that might have to do with the detorioration of top notes. Let's see what you think if you win the draw: You are entered!

  14. Dear Z,

    of course you're in! Glad you liked the review.
    Best of luck!

  15. Recently, I saw a mini of this on a website (not eBay) for big bucks. I debated whether to buy unsniffed. My cautious nature won and I passed on it. Now, it's gone. :(

    You are too generous to us! Please enter me in the draw.

  16. Iris,

    I am sorry...Perhaps you might win a sample here, though!

  17. Anonymous20:14

    Would love to sample NN - enter me!

    How generous of you H.

  18. Anonymous20:21

    thanks so much for entering me in the very generous draw offer. Your review amps up my already exisiting desire to smell this. thanks also for the great videoclip; an interesting, unexpected soundtrack for the reading.


  19. Anonymous20:21

    Hi Helg!
    That was one great piece of work! And how kind of you to offer us such an opportunity: WOW!!!!

    [Please enter me in the draw!!]

  20. Anonymous21:29

    THANK YOU!!!! HELG! I have never seen anyone as generous. Please enter me!! (oh and I loved the clip choice)


  21. Jane,

    thank you for your kind words on both review and music.
    I have included your name.

  22. Abigail,

    thanks for your enthusiasm and you're welcome.

    I have included you in the draw.

  23. Irene,

    you make me blush. Please! It's my pleasure. Just a democratic chance for the "layman/laywoman", so to speak (don't know if this sounds offensive but I swear it's not meant that way at all), to sample it.

    You're in!

  24. Anonymous00:44

    Your review was so beautiful, making me want to smell this so bad. And yet, I think, it is best for me to never smell it, because if I loved it (and from the sound of it I would), I'd be heartbroken not being able to acquire it.

  25. Anonymous00:48

    Helg, please include me in the drawing. February is my birth month; maybe I will get lucky.

    This is a very, very generous act on your part, Helg--to share precious drops of a beautiful rarity. I would love to see what it is like. I'm very fond of Rose de Nuit.

  26. Anonymous05:40

    I've not been able to sample this but every review I've ever read has been rapturous. How fortunate you are to be able to experience this and how kind to share it with a lucky reader. Please enter me in the drawing.
    Ilse M.

  27. Sabina,

    thank you for your most kind words. I can understand your point very well *sigh*

  28. Maria, dear,

    I do hope you get lucky!
    Awww...I merely want it to be like it was for me: finally finding out what all the fuss was about.

  29. Ilse,

    you're welcome: you're in!

  30. wow - what a generous thing - to assuage the curiousity of the famished! this is one thing that Turin/Burr really made me curious about - and your review even more so! please enter me in the drawing! many thanks...

  31. Anonymous14:14

    Wow, perfume saint you are, Helg!
    May perfume gods bestow all kinds of great favours on you:))
    I'd love to be in the draw, it's thrilling even to know thre's a chance.

  32. Haus von stone, you're in. Hope you find out!

  33. Veronica,

    Well, guess what, you're included so you do stand a chance! :-)

  34. Anonymous17:59

    I'd love a chance to try this scent. It sounds fascinating!

  35. Anonymous20:09

    Please enter me in the drawing. After all this I really want to try it.

  36. Wonderful, post, E, and you are a sweet soul for sharing your precious stash.

    Don't put my name in the hat. I've never had the pleasure of sniffing NN, but I rather like dreaming about it in the abstract. Best of luck to everyone else, it'll be fun to see who wins the lottery.

  37. DarkPheonix,

    you're in! I hope if you win you find it to your liking.

  38. Maitreyi,

    of course I have included you in the draw.

  39. Dear M,

    thanks for your very kind comment.

    Sometimes it is best to dream about something, because the reality cannot fulfil the wild expectations. I understand.
    I am curious to see who wins myself: I have already designated a person who will pick the lucky name.

  40. Anonymous15:54

    I have just read Luca Turin's book The Secret of Scent and I am simply dying to try Nombre Noir! Please add my name to the draw!

  41. Anonymous19:32

    Thank you for commenting on my thread seeking suggestions for SL Exclusifs to try. I might just have to add Rose de Nuit to the list... it sounds fascinating and worth smelling just for its own sake.

    Please enter me in the draw, although I don't know if I'm worthy!

  42. Anonymous20:50

    Dear, thank you for the post, the song is one of mymost favourite ones and it fits to a T. Don't count me in as when i would love it i would be so very sad about not being able... on the other sniff might be so pleasant ... pleased DO count me in... :-)

  43. Kopah,

    you're very welcome :-)

    Oh, not being worthy...why do you say that? The whole point of this draw is being worthy just because one loves perfume.
    Of course you're in!

  44. N, dear,

    how could I leave you out of this?
    You're included, of course :-)

  45. Wonderful. I am in the throes of a powerful lemming. Please include me in the drawing!

  46. Standing wave,

    welcome and you're in! Good luck!

  47. Anonymous18:00

    Helg, it is very kind of you to offer a precious samp of Nombre Noir. I know the Moirae won't choose me twice in a row, and I probably shouldn't throw my hat in the ring, but here it is anyway, if only a formality---you can add my name to the drawing.

    Wonderful article, as always.

  48. Dear Helg,

    Please enter me in the drawing! Very generous of you to offer a sample of this... I enjoy your blog hugely, and it's even more wonderful to have a chance at sniffing something so legendary. Thank you!

  49. Thank you Freegracer for your wonderful compliment and rest assured that I have added you, just in case.

    Good luck!

  50. Noy,

    I am happy that you enjoy the writing hugely, as you say and it would be a pleasure to enter you in the drawing.

    You're in!

  51. Anonymous11:54

    I've just discovered this blog, and it is gorgeous! I hope I'll find time to read this ALL :)
    Enter me in the drawing, please.

  52. Elve, thank you for your wonderful compliments on Perfume Shrine.
    (Nice project you have yourself going there).

    Of course you're in!

  53. Hi Helg

    Throw my name into the hat.... ;-)

    What the heck

    I'm feeling lucky today.... Nombre Noir, Nombre Noir

    Nombre Noir (voodoo chant) ;-)

  54. Sofia,

    I am wishing you the best of luck! May your voodoo chant work :-)

  55. Lovely blog... thank you!

    Please enter me in the drawing for Nombre Noir!


  56. Anonymous23:40

    Fascinating article, Helg; thanks muchly. I wonder if Venezia has some of these damascones? It certainly has that prune/tobacco thing going.

    I would love to sniff Nombre Noir; please count me in. And I'm deeply impressed by your generosity in sharing something so rare.

  57. Anonymous02:32

    Hi Helg,

    Please enter me in your drawing. My curiousity has been piqued after reading your blog entry.

    Thanks dear.

    Dawn (dawnkana)

  58. Anonymous04:51

    Hi Helg,

    I'm so happy to see a review of Nombre Noir - The Emperor of Scent made me very curious about it. Please enter me in the drawing.

  59. Oh. My. Goodness.

    I'm usually a total lurker, but if this isn't enough to overcome my comment-shyness!

    I would love to be included in the draw. How generous of you to be giving out some of the Precious!

    Thank you!

  60. Dawn,

    of course you're in!

    BTW, didn't make it to reply to your lovely mail in time, but I will do so shortly. (forgive me)

  61. Amy K,

    good luck: I have included you in the draw.

  62. Six',

    you're very welcome, I have included you in the draw.
    And thanks for intoducing me to new things ;-)

  63. Anonymous18:49

    It would make my year if I had the chance to try Nombre Noir. Please enter me in the drawing!

  64. good evening,
    yes, i am at home sick with this virus wich is the talk of the town so i have plenty of time on my hands to read and learn about perfumes.
    While reading your post about NOMBRE NOIR for fun I made a search in Ebay...there's a bottle wich will be sold in less than 10 hours for the incredible amount of 699US$.
    But the gods now i would buy if i could...

  65. Not sure I would ever make that sort of purchase on ebay - too many fake over there!

    It would be cool if someone who actually owned a bottle of this would bring it to a sort of BYOB event at a sniffapalooza-type event - then at least we'd have some idea (the next time) what we were smelling - or not, if it were fake!

  66. Hello :)
    Oh well, i like taking chances & take full responsibility of the consequences. Up until now, i have been lucky. "Beginners luck" ? I like to think it this way.
    I still would bid on this flacon. Perfume world, even on ebay is a small world i begin to understand ;)
    Cheers to PerfumeShrine & to you!
    - V

  67. Violaine,

    how fortunate! I do wish you could try it without that steep price tag. Although it's a rarity fetching inordinate prices (the packaging mainly was so luxurious)

  68. Julie,

    you have a point!! Especially with vintages, no one knows what they're getting unless they have another bottle to compare (and even then...) or can summon the courage and go to L'Osmotheque which employs the best of perfume knowledge toreconstruct the recipes as aunthentically as possible.

    It would be cool for Sniffa indeed! Great idea! (wish I could have joined you)

  69. V,

    it's a TINY world and you heard this from me ;-)

    Hugs to you!!

  70. Nomber Noir is to be featured in Joseph Finder's new book BURIED SECRETS which is scheduled to be released June 21, 2011. See his video at

  71. Anonymous09:31

    I want one , I just want to know from which store I can buy , I don’t want it from eBay or something .


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