- a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Santal Majuscule’
In perfumery, the term ‘base notes’ describes those essences and accords that remain on your skin long after the rest of the magic carpet ride has passed on, the ones that are so fundamental, so rich, so ubiquitous that to conceive of a perfume without them is pointless. Each of them contain entire olfactory universes, ever-unfolding stories, songs and words that evolve and change and breathe with such a life of their own, it’s no surprise at all they are counted among the oldest, most beloved and most sacred of all perfumery materials. One of them is so adored, it’s literally been loved and extracted to near extinction, loved…and adulterated, counterfeited and passed off as itself, when in fact it is nothing of the kind.
Sandalwood. The very name is all you need to conjure up images of intricately carved keepsake boxes, of simple prayer beads and elaborate furnishings, the red paste of chandan used in Hindu ritual, of sacred incense and treasured soaps to scent drawers and cupboards, and above all, the incredibly intricate, complex fragrance of the oil itself, sweet, floral, fruity and dense, creamy, vegetal, musty, moody and woody, it has a subtle animal pulse on skin like nothing else on Earth, simultaneously earthy…and numinous.
Now Serge Lutens, no stranger to the marvels of sandalwood with Santal Blanc and Santal de Mysore, has once again retold the tale of sandalwood, only this time, the story is both ancient as time like all the best stories, as sandalwood itself, and so modern and new and surprising I wonder – not for the last time – how can this be a tale in perfume I never breathed before?
As a base note, as a fixative, I’ve loved sandalwood for its ability to add a Baroque dimension to so many perfumes, perfumes I’ve worn and loved for decades. On its own in the spotlight, I’ve been too much a survivor of a 1960s childhood best described as ‘Bohemian’ to love it for its own sake, or else, the very word sandalwood came to be associated with so many overpowering scent memories of ‘de trop’.
Too much, too Indian, too heady, too Oriental…too many cheap imitations and adulterations of real Mysore sandalwood or else always united with its once ubiquitous best friend… patchouli.
Yet for all that, the world turns, perceptions change and even I.
This is 2012 after all, here is Santal Majuscule, sandalwood ‘writ large in capital letters’ and it is, after all, a Lutens. What stories would it tell, would I get a magic carpet ride, would the world tilt on its axis?
The short answer is…you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, yes to all of the above, and then again…yet meanwhile, I can’t forget…
Which is no way to describe it as well as it deserves.
It begins as…almost a cliché, an Arabian mukhallat attar of sandalwood – Australian sandalwood, I’ve read, but no one able to remember the mythical glories of Mysore sandalwood will feel remotely cheated – and rose. Not just any rose, this is a rose of a deep, dark, velvety hue. The wood itself is smooth as satin, not milky or creamy as I would expect but instead honeyed and warm without once dancing into gourmand territory.
Yet dance Santal Majuscule certainly does, dancing through the rose, through the heart of the wood, the dream, the myth that sandalwood has become, and as it moves and bends and twirls on my skin, now almost touching a bitter sotto voce note of cocoa, next sashaying through a spicy cloud of cinnamon, then flirting with a rich but never cloying note of honey – orange blossom honey, says my biased nose that detects another floral note, my favorite honey – but always around that central focal point of sandalwood and rose.
Around and around it moves as it transpires, breathing new life and new moves and a new light into a story and a glorious dream of sandalwood as old as all the best tales are, as new as today, as this moment, this very breath, this word and this letter, written with a capital L.
It seems a bit strange to write of a perfume that it dances on my skin. Yet that is precisely what Santal Majuscule does. Not an elegantly contrived ballet so much as something far more spontaneous and kinetic, as elegant and ornate as the russet-hued Erté illustration I chose, as genuine as only a true myth can be. It is still, yet it moves in that stillness, moves through a sandalwood dream, delights in the luminous clouds of honey and spice, trailing its legends of rose behind.
Many, many hours later, when I have decided that sandalwood will never be the same and even I have changed and moved as I breathed it, I am left with a wink and a whispered growl in the twilight, wrapped up warm in the sable pelt of an otherworldly, numinous animal. Maybe it’s the soul that hides in the heart of the wood, the soul that wrote the story, the soul that writes these words?
‘Obey my silences, not my commands’, states the Latin in the picture below, and this closet Classicist bends the Latin as only Latin can bend to say it can also mean…
‘Do as I do and not as I say.’
Move with this fabled wood and follow the story it tells. Dance through a heart that is lit from within and write out the words with a capital L!
Notes: Australian sandalwood, honey, cocoa, cinnamon, Arabian rose attar
Images: Above: Romain de Tirtoff, a.k.a. Erté
Below: Santal Majuscule, reproduced here with the permission of Serge Lutens.