Friday, August 1, 2008

El Attarine by Serge Lutens: fragrance review

“The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold.” ~Job 28:19

The golden glory of sunrise over the beige stones of the Merenid tombs overlooking Fez has nothing on El Attarine by Serge Lutens, nor do the riches of Arabia as it encompasses them all in its majestic stride.
"Today, I offer you gold, sun-drenched topaz, everlasting flowers and saps", Lutens and Sheldrake, his magician in the wings, had promised us and this solar fragrance has been most successfully achieved in El Attarine.

"In Arab countries, “attarin” means sweet-smelling, and refers to everything within the realm of the atar: fragrance, heart, flavour and essence". Attars recall the mysteries of the east, its people and the rituals in which they engage. The mingling of smell and taste is not unheard of in the Lutens/Sheldrake cosmos, as both Douce Amère and Mandarine Mandarin are impressions of gustatory speciments (absinthe and mandarin respectively) that reveal side panels of aromas like in a Byzantine triptych ~"Attarine is not a closed door. You cannot make a perfume with only your nose".

El Attarine is also the name of a regal, elite Koranic school in Fez dating from the 14th century: Medersa or Medressa El Attarine, (Medersa means religious school) thus the fragrance is another homage to the Arabic culture that has been providing Lutens with inspiration for the last 2 decades at least. Created in 1325 by Sultan Ya’qub Abu Said Uthman II who also had a hand in several other buildings around the city of Fez, El Attarine is situated at the edge of the spice and perfume market; the unison of carnal to spiritual is only a stone's throw away.

El Attarine, the fragrance by Lutens, bursts like the solar corona of an eclipse that is infused in the honeyed tones of the nectar of orange blossoms. This honey note, probably attributed to phenylacetic acid, which makes a much more pronounced appearence in the derisive Miel de Bois, is here giving an intense sweetness of drops dribbling from a bronze spoon on dried fruits; fruits that lay on a basket at the market under clear blue skies, alongside little squares of heaped spices in all the colours of the rainbow: there is a little cumin, very delicately interwoven, and stamens of red saffron, the very delicate peppery bite of poppy seeds. The milky, sweet tenderness of those nuances vaguely recalls the more intense and sweaty Arabie, with its souk ambience on a hot day. The garlands of jasmine fanned out on woody notes are discreet, as if a glimpse behind a closing shutter leaving us wondering on the surreptitious inhabitants.

And then, after about half an hour, there rises the olfactory focus of immortelle/helychrisum, more commonly known as everlasting flower, aimed at offering a new interpretation that will set a new frontier in fragrance exploration. Both facets of the material, essence and absolute seem to have been utilized: With a complex odour profile, immortelle is a fascinating note with a herbaceous, honey-like aroma in the essential oil whereas it recalls the unique odour of spicy fenugreek (Trigonella Foenum Graecum) in the absolute, imparting amazing lasting power and evoking maple syrup for many. In El Attarine the immortelle note is less maple-like, less sticky than Annick Goutal's archetype in Sables and with less of a curry, salty-pungent note than Eau Noire by Dior. Rather it has the slightly bitter, pleasurable edge also present in L de Lolita Lempicka minus the cinnamon lappings; it offsets alongside a smidge of what smells like medicinal "oud" (a pathogenic secretion of some trees in the Far East) the initial intense sweetness into a progression than holds your attention span for the twists through the alleyways of Fez.

Like the Gettys lying on a starlit terrace in Marrakesh, beautiful and damned and a whole generation assembled as if for eternity where the curtain of the past seemed to lift before an extraordinary future, before the disillusionment and the tragic end set in, El Attarine is a re-affirmation of a passionate relationship with both the past and the future.
El Attarine possesses that most elusive of qualities: luminous translucence which can make a fragrance appear like a faceted gem mounted in 22 carat gold: it catches every ray of the sun as it hits it from different angles into a magnificent study of light. In contrast to the byzantine candelabras of Serge Noire, casting shadows amidst the light, El Attarine is melting under the intense sun of a terrible dawn.

In a Parthian Shot, Serge left us with this cryptogram: "It is an accord born out of a disagreement in the first person. From my attarinian solitude, the fruits of my imagination were abundant".
It is up to you to participate into its solution by trying out El Attarine.
The fragrance is quite lasting but with a rather discreet sillage that shouldn't pose any problems to those who are in your vicinity.

El Attarine belongs to the line of Exclusives sold only in the Salons du Palais Royal in Paris, encased in beautiful bell jars of 75ml.

Pic of Talitha and Paul Getty at The Pleasure Palace in Marrakech, shot by P.Lichfield in 1969 ~reproduced via Pic of Limited Edition bottle courtesy of El Attarine via Ambre Gris. Pic of sunrise sent to me by mail unacredited.


  1. Hello, Helg --

    You make El Attarine sound absolutely fantastic (phenylacetic acid notwithstanding). I'm intrigued by the immortelle, which, as you note, is quite sweet and sticky in the AG Sables. I haven't yet experienced it in Eau Noire, but I recently sampled Parfums D'Empire Fougère Bengale, which, I believe, plays with a similar lavender-immortelle accord. The difference you cite between the essential oil and the absolute is quite interesting.

    And wow, that limited edition bell jar is beautiful.

  2. Anonymous13:26

    I wake, into a beautiful dream. My perfume interest has been slumbering, diminished by the brighter light of summer. But here you make me realise this was a false glare, and I need the sharp refocusing only this multifaceted marvel can bring. It's really as good as it sounds, E?

    I phoned the Salons to ask for a sample - they're normally so obliging. This time, I was told I'd be sent a wax sample of El Attarine sometime in August, and that 'Serge Noire is already available in England; please test it there.' It didn't quell my ardour!

    Nepenthe has well and truly left the building; you're forcing me to remember my love!

  3. Oh, E., you've beaten me to it! I've just secured a treasured few drops of El Attarine through a somewhat tortuous path and am planning to spend the week-end a-sniffing, for a Monday review.
    Your review brings to mind my pungent memories of Marrakesh... I met so many of the people who were in the Getty-Saint Laurent entourage!
    You make the fragrance sound quite astounding.
    And Lee, it's lovely to see you back in perfumeland, you sleeping beauty!

  4. Oh, E., you've beaten me to it! I've just secured a treasured few drops of El Attarine through a somewhat tortuous path and am planning to spend the week-end a-sniffing, for a Monday review.
    Your review brings to mind my pungent memories of Marrakesh... I met so many of the people who were in the Getty-Saint Laurent entourage!
    You make the fragrance sound quite astounding.
    And Lee, it's lovely to see you back in perfumeland, you sleeping beauty!

  5. Lee!!!!!

    That's my squeal quotient for the day. If anything were to awake you, I guess it would end up being a Serge Lutens immortelle, wouldn't it? I don't think this one is for me, although perhaps if it stays far away from curry I'll give it a try. (PS: please come back!)

    The Getty-Saint Laurent entourage in Marrakesh!!!!

    Ok, I guess I had more squeal left in me. You people are just too fabulous for your own good, what with your early samplings and Parisian hob nobbing. I swear, Atlantic, I'm crossing you in style, someday...

  6. Anonymous17:18

    Thanks so much for the beautiful review Helg - I very much look forward to receiving my decant next month! El Attarine sounds so beautiful.

  7. Anonymous17:30

    Dear E!

    I should stop reading your reviews! Here I am, trying to save money so that I finish my 400 bottles of perfume, and you give me a new lemming. Sigh. I want this so badly now. This, and Serge Noire. Lovely review by the way; very convincing! SL should employ you.

  8. Dear J,

    it IS quite fantastic and I surprised myself. After being quite taken with Serge Noire, I admit I wasn't expecting the other one to be as fascinating. Yet it has a heady sweetness that managed to capture me...
    I agree that Fougere Bengale is close to Eau Noire, and not just because they say so: the two are exploiting the same facets and they have a curry note (the immortelle). In Sables it's quite different (maple-y, sticky, persistent, marbled like a fossil).
    And in El Attarine it's something else anew!
    The LE bell jars are always beauties...*sigh*

  9. Dear Lee!!! *squeeling with delight*

    Welcome back my friend from your nepenthe phase into the rejoicing of life. You reminded me of one of my favourite poets with that phrase! (Karyotakis, FWIW)

    Yes, EA is beautiful, very wearable, very sweet ~but somehow very attractively so: not the vulgar sweet of tooth cavities, rather the Middle-Eastern small squares of delight that are promised to men in Paradise.

  10. Dear D,
    gosh I didn't! And there I was thinking you had already sniffed and rejected it, hence your silence.
    It took the combined efforts of a very, VERY sweet lady who shall remain unnamed and quick timing to get a liquid sample of El Attarine, I can tell you!
    I bet the Marrakech entourage will be reminiscing through such stimuli as scent as well: those were some serious glam days.

  11. Dear BillyD,

    LOL, you're a riot!
    We're having our own little problems, this side of the pond. But the upside sure is bright and sunny and makes it up, I guess.
    We would welcome you, anytime!

  12. Dear T,

    thank you for your compliment! I think it's going to be quite popular, it's very wearable; especially for an immortelle/honey fragrance.

  13. Dear T,

    you pay me the greatest compliment, honey, thank you so much for your most kind words; I am blushing like a poppy whose seeds have been employed in a Middle-Eastern delicacy :-)

    If only Lutens would employ me, what a dream job, huh?

  14. Dear E., and Billy... I wrote my reply too quickly, and my words could be misconstrued: while I *did* meet a lot of people of the original Getty-Saint Laurent haute bohemians in Marrakesh, it was to do a story on them, though they were gracious enough to have me as a guest in their, well, faaaaaaabulous houses. And I never did get a chance to meet M. Saint Laurent, who had by that time move on to Tangiers. Most of them were already getting on in years, so I don't know how many are still around. They were all abuzz about Serge Lutens' house, by the way: I only met one person, an architect, who had set foot in it! And he didn't breach the secrecy. Sigh...

  15. Oh, and E. : I only got the sample a couple of days ago, also by a very roundabout way, but I was already busy writing up the new Frédéric Malle. Too much felicity in one fell swoop!

  16. Oh FINE - give us the porno review and then say it's an Exclusive and we can't have it!! ;-)

    Seriously, this sounds SO very good and your description is nothing less than majestic. I am looking forward to trying Serge Noire at my local shop soon, but this one - OMG it seems to be so very different and wonderful. I WILL obtain a sample of this, somehow...

  17. I can remember seeing that photo of Talitha and Paul Getty when it first came out in the late 60's /early 70's. I was a teen then and I wanted to look and be groovey and cool just like her.
    Thankgod that did not happen!
    They ended up not having such a "groovey" time didn't they?

    Helg - I have to say that bottle is very attractive , and for the amber lovers, a very nice purchase inside and out!

  18. Thanks D for the added info on your acquaintances :-)

  19. Flora,
    sorry about that! (and thanks for your wonderful compliment!!)
    El Attarine is completely different from Serge Noire: they're both great though, which is a magnificent and very welcome surprise.
    Do mail me at the end of the month, I might be able to send you a sample ;-)

  20. Dear M,

    indeed those limited edition bottles are fabulous and this one is especially fetching, isn't it? It is so arabesque!

    Yeah, the Gettys didn't have much luck, poor souls. You must have looked trully glamorous if Talitha was your fashion icon!

  21. I asked about El Attarine at the boutique, but I was not lucky enough to smell it, sigh.

  22. We shall remedy that! ;-)

  23. Drop me an email as soon as you get your hand on a bottle :D.

  24. Of course I will! :-)


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