Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vetiver Oriental by Serge Lutens: fragrance review

Sporadically one comes across a perfume composition that is perplexing yet enthralling like a chameleon actor who manages to marry opposites, hiding a little cruelty under a suave façade.
Serge Lutens has made history in producing influencial "chef d'oeuvres". His Vétiver Oriental, although not extrapolating the oriental zenith that other fragrances in his line accomplish in a more assured way, such as El Attarine , Arabie or Douce Amère, is stunning nevertheless. The reason is as much aesthetic as it is intellectual: I cannot shake the impression that the task of scaling down, of attenuating the formula to the richness and sumptuousness of the material's roots is an algebric challenge, a piano étude aimed at perfecting a specific agilité that is not in tune with the Lutensian way of usual opulence.
And yet...and yet the result speaks in hushed, nocturnal voices of a decadent drawl; a few chiseled citrusy consonants, a little rubbery-smoky with the rosiness of gaiac wood, surprisingly sweet-spoken licorice-like (deriving from lots of anisaldehyde) with the earthy bitter edge of dry cocoa and loads and loads of polished woods, almost laminated. The natural earthiness of vetiver is heavily flanked by this strange bittersweet idea which was accordingly used in tandem with patchouli in Bornéo 1834 to magnificent results. The quiet plush of balsams and resins (perhaps Peru balsam?) and animalic-like ladbanum elements bring the recollection of warm skin not stripped of its natural oils through the use of perfumes and deodorants, a tad salty. There are some common elements with Le Baiser du Dragon by Cartier which uses vetiver in an orientalised composition of amaretto hints and a tropical white flower in order to cut through the sweetness.

However if the onomatopœia is anything to go by, Serge Lutens and his trusty cohort Christopher Sheldrake, fooled us into believing this is a vetiver-sounding fragrance: it is not and therein lies its strength or weakness. Contrary to the painful pureness of Vétiver Extraordinaire by Frédéric Malle, Vétiver Oriental goes for the trajectory of the root, inviting a Guess Who? game like the late Theresa Duncan used to say; veering into the quasi-gourmand makes it a fabulous amuse-guele but somehow too much as a main course. Nevertheless, this is the time of year when it naturally shines its golden viscosity: the crisp weather brings out all its velvety attributes while its exceptional lasting power and moderate sillage are welcome comforts.

My friend Gaia wrote:"What I'm getting is a feeling of a dark jungle, exotic and wild. As it unfolds its beauty, you also sense the danger that lurks just behind, tempting you to go in deeper". If Vetiver Oriental is indeed a lion in the jungle, then it is the emaciated Scar with his almond shaped green eyes lowly roaring in silvery tones "a shining new era is tiptoeing nearer; just listen to teacher".

Notes for Vetiver Oriental: sap, musk, sandalwood, Iris Pallida, undergrowth notes, amber, chocolate, rockrose labdanum, vetiver, gaiac wood, mosses.

Vetiver Oriental is a Palais Royal Paris exclusive created in 2002 contained in the characteristic bell-shaped jars. It was released for export for a limited time only for winter 2004 in the refined, sparse rectangular bottle. It has now reverted back to exclusive status.

For a comprehensive analysis of vetiver fragrances click Vetiver Series.

Jeremy Irons pic via Getty images, bottle pic via Les Salons du Palais Royal


  1. Wow, E. A photo of Jeremy Irons could easily make me run out and buy a bottle of Vétiver Oriental. I tried it over the summer, and found it far too sweet and gourmand for me, but perhaps it is worth re-testing it in the colder weather. I've seen some export bottles still available here.

  2. Anonymous14:58

    this is also at Barneys and can be ordered online :)

  3. One of my most regretted fragrance trade-offs, i ended up coming by a large sample of this, before I had learned to appreciated vetiver, and immediately swapped it away. I always think the note of vetiver and iris are very intellectual scents.

  4. J,

    :-) Isn't he a dish?

    It is quite sweet and gourmand! I think it's one of those frags that are better suited to cooler weather although it's not that bad in the heat (but not as refreshing as most vetivers; probably because it isn't too vetiver-y)
    Yes, those exports sometime are left someplace waiting to be picked up by someone at the last minute.

  5. M,

    thanks. I assume it's left-over stock so it's a matter of "first come, first served" and then no more.
    (which might also suggest that it hasn't been moving much: now why would that be?)

  6. J,

    are they? I usually am wary of such "labels" but maybe you have a point in them being a little bit of an acquired taste.

  7. I guess I don't have a sample of Vetiver Orientale (I thought I did), but instead, I put on some Vetiver Tonka this morning, and was reminded how lovely it is. Now THIS is the gourmand vetiver I would go for, if I needed a gourmand vetiver.

  8. You're in for a treat tomorrow then ;-)
    VT is the one I wear of the time myself: it's amazingly easy to pull off on every occasion from casual to dressy, summer through winter.

  9. Hi Helg,
    you've made me crawl out of the woodwork at last! :) Vetiver Oriental is another Lutens I've been meaning to try and there you go piqueing my interest even more. I like yesterday's VE for its brill execution of a 'solivetiver' but prefer my vet blanketed in warmer, sweeter nuances, so it's no wonder that VT claims the top spot in my heart. Can't wait for tomorrow's review! :)

  10. Dusan,

    thank you for your wonderful mail and your compliments on Perfume Shrine: I'll enjoy reading your opinion on several issues here, so it's a good thing you delurked :-)

    OK, we'll do something about that ;-)and hope you enjoy the VT review.

  11. Helg, don't be too worried I am sure there are ditzy vetiver and iris scents out there, but I haven't smelled them. I'm not necessarily saying that these scents will make the wearer an intellectual, but when I wear iris or vetiver I am always put into a very thoughtful mood. They always seem to stimulate my brain waves. Even when used in the sexy combo of Le Baiser du Dragon to me there seems to be something intellectual going on. But then again that is my own interpretation of the notes; I think we all associate notes with different qualities depending on our experience with them.

  12. Thanks for clarifying Jen :-)
    I agree that i has to do with interpretation and association: cognitive processes!
    Yes, Le Baiser du Dragon is a weird one, many moods (and I love it in parfum form!)


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