Invisible Armor

– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Chêne’

The problem with being a certified perfumoholic is how it can spill over in unexpected ways into other aspects of life and associations that don’t have too much to do with perfume and more to do with what that particular scent and mood represents.

Once upon a time not too long ago, I wrote a nothing little short story that grew legs in no time and kept on walking, before it hopped, skipped, ran and evolved into a full-blown novel that wasn’t at all what even I expected. These were before the days of perfume blogging, before the days of friends on several sides of three oceans and help for desperate situations. These were the days when I debated with myself for weeks before I finally gathered up the courage to send an email to a perfume house so impossibly refined and indubitably sophisticated, I agonized over a French dictionary and my own oxidized French for three whole nights before I just gave up the ghost and wrote them in English.

Time to email Parfums Serge Lutens and request the famous Petit Livre des Parfums. I was some sort of grownup now, and I was getting awfully peeved at reading so many purple-prosed reviews of Lutens perfumes on perfume blogs and not having a clue. Nothing could be that good. I was too old to be that intimidated.

In no time, I received a nice, fat, fragrant envelope and a nicely signed card that I still own today, and braced myself for this Brave New World ahead. I knew that this was…a moment from which I could never turn back, and my olfactory universe would never be quite the same again.

One in particular caught my attention out of the many that I felt I must some day own, or else die with a severe sense of deprivation. As a perfume, it checked all the right boxes. Green, smoky, both ephemeral and earthy, it was like nothing else I had ever smelled, and evoked an emotion I had never felt before. It made me feel stronger, walk taller, it made me feel…invincible.

Chêne. A liquid ode to the mighty oak tree in all its aspects – the green of the leaves, the smell of sap, the sweet, vanilla-tinged fragrance of its wood. It was…love at first sniff.

It wasn’t long before a large decant found its way into my greedy little hands and Chêne found its way onto my green-craving skin. I never suspected I would enjoy feeling quite so much like Joan of Arc at the moment she walks into the French camp and demands a horse and an audience with the French king. Suddenly, I was Boudicca and Hippolyta and the living embodiment of every female warrior who ever breathed, and there would be no tragic ending here, no chink in this armor. I would never be punished for my transgression in thinking I was equal to anything or anyone, and I would not be intimidated…ever again.

Back to those ever-colder, ever-darker November nights not so long ago, wrestling with the Devil and a few demons of my own making, trawling the murky depths of my subconscious for a story I didn’t even know I needed to tell. Over the next few months, perfume too began weaving its seductive trail through the storyline…as the description of a mood or invocation of an atmosphere, as a bribe, or as a foreshadowing of events to come.

Above them all stood Chêne, my protagonist’s favorite. At her first meeting with a prestigious New York literary agent, she reflects…

I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt, pulled at my suede boots and tried to forget a bra strap was slowly but surely sliding down my left shoulder. I should have worn something else besides Chêne, something safe and innocuous and familiar, but Chêne was my invisible armor.

And at a much later point in the story, after triumph and tragedy, the Devil, no longer what even he once was, decides to pay a visit and remembers:

Skin like silk, a perfumed promise of deliverance, that low, feline growl at the back of her throat, that green and sappy, sweet and smoky trail of Chêne at the back of her neck that drove me mad.

It’s no coincidence at all that the three perfumes my protagonist specifically describes as wearing at different times in the story are all Lutens/Sheldrake creations, nor that when the Devil takes a four-year vacation, he leaves with a bell jar of Chêne, one reminder of that latter-day Joan of Arc who stole the heart he didn’t think he had.

Herbal and green, Chêne starts as a surprise and ends as an aria to all the glories of the wood it celebrates. Cedar and thyme and a deliciously boozy rum dance out into the air off my skin. Instead of slouching, I stand up straighter. When first the birch and next what must be immortelle arrive, I’m talking back, I feel safe and protected and somehow invincible. Life can throw me whatever surprises it likes. Nothing will occur that I can’t handle. My invisible armor sparkles in the sunlight that bounces off the leaves.

Many hours later, the rum, birch, immortelle and sap give way to a furry tonka bean and smoky, burning wood, the scent of a bonfire flaming on a Midsummer’s Eve beneath the boughs, but this is no heretic burning at any stake for her hubris at challenging the status quo, this is a celebration of life and every living creature that breathes and loves. The eerie, earthy, aroma of sap and all that grows, the scent of the oak itself, sacred to Jupiter, and an intimation to be aware that not all that rustles in the undergrowth may be benign. Some creatures may bite, some may sting and all of them are hungry for that taste of green, effervescent life.

If ever a perfume smells…atavistic, this would be it. Proud and pagan, unapologetic and primeval, this is the quintessence of Wood, quintessence of Oak, a sophisticated ode to all that grows just below our ability to articulate it.

Nevertheless, we can grasp it, we can understand it, we can look up in awe at that majestic, sacred tree …and feel its essence in our bones and in that ancient part of our memories that hides just beyond our words.

Wearing Chêne, I can go out into the world and meet…literary agents, editors, Very Important People of any stripe, and present them with the Ten Most Important Reasons I Should Be Heard, and more to the point – knowing that I will be. I’m a latter-day Joan of Arc, although I won’t burn at any stake for my hubris and my own choice of divinity might be unorthodox. Yet I can accomplish whatever I choose with whomever I meet.

Now, Your Majesty, I shall need a horse and a sword. Where did you say those cowardly, lily-livered Anglais were hiding?

Notes according to Basenotes:
Sap, cedar crystals, black thyme, silver birch, rum, beeswax, oak, undergrowth note, tonka.

Chêne is available in the export line of Serge Lutens perfumes, available at Luckyscent, Aedes, and at Barneys NY. It is also available from the Serge Lutens website.

Image of Joan of Arc from Wikimedia Commons

16 thoughts on “Invisible Armor

  1. Have you ever been accused of witchcraft? You've got me under your spell!

    Thank goodness I have a sample of Chene in my collection; I would have been compelled to make the four hour round-trip to Perfume House otherwise. 🙂

    I would love to see all your writing in print— perhaps a collection of reviews is in order?

  2. Just beautiful! An ode to the thing that gives you such strength is a necessary expression of art (and sentimentality).

    I feel like I need to find my sample of Chene as well, now. I had never felt any particular affinity or dislike towards it, but I really ought to give it another try.

  3. Okay, I didn't dig out my sample of Chene today, but I did receive a sample order which contained Bois de Violette… I've got a new expensive problem hanging over my head now. It reminds me of Feminite du Bois, which I wore many years ago (in its original Shiseido incarnation), but is more in line with my current tastes.

    Sorry, back to our regularly scheduled Serge Lutens programming. 🙂

    *fans self*

  4. Dee, here's a little story for you…One hot summer night in 1985, I met a strange man who told me he and I had been burned at the stake in Lyme Regis in 1626 – accused of witchcraft. He also said that we weould meet that one night and never again.

    Much, much later, more for giggles than anything else, I did a little investigating. Came to find out that in 1626, there was indeed a couple (not married, she was a widowed midwife, he was a farmer) accused, convicted and burned at the stake…And I never did meet that man again…

    Welcome to the twilight zone! 🙂

    Do you know, I'd like to see myself in print, too! So if anyone knows an agent…

  5. Carrie…thank you! Chêne has a very special place in my heart…and even in my book!

    On some, it slants masculine, but not on me. It just brings out my inner Morrígan…;-)

  6. Oh, Carrie…Bois de Violette…don't get me started on that one…You and me, kiddo…you and me…

    At some point in the fall (it would have to be), I foresee a TPC splurge…Bois de Violette, Chêne (since I'm practically out and a FB is out of the question for now), and Ambre Sultan, which I'm also nearly out of…On the other hand, must count my blessings…when my mentor, Denise, was turned on to Boxeuses recently, she received a complimentary 15 ml bottle of Feminitè du Bois, and promptly stated I should have it!

    We get by with a little help from our friends! XOXO

  7. I have not yet smelled Chene.

    To be honest, I have not been all that lucky with Uncle Serge's offerings, and I wasn't drawn by the notes list when I was making up an order for SL samples at TPC last year. However, I recently tried SSS To DReam, which has an oak note, and loved it. (Laurie also sent a little vial of the oak ingredient separately, and I loved that as well).

    I am now on the prowl for a sample of Chene… although my Invisible Armor scents already exist: No. 19, in vintage edt, and Jolie Madame, in parfum. Wonderful things.

  8. Dee…imagine, if you will, how I felt! Incidentally, there is indeed a museum of witchcraft in Lyme Regis in Dorset, who were kind enough to look up that trial for me…

  9. Muse…I can imagine that a lot of Lutens/Sheldrake creations can be…a challenge. Indeed, not a few are for me, among them…Douce Amer, Chergui, Rahal Loukhoum and that radioactive cherry bomb known as Louve.

    But the ones that do explode blow up all the way down to bedrock, so to say, and among those is…Chêne.

    No. 19 as invisible armor I can totally understand (I prefer the EdP myself, but love both of them), and my mother wore Jolie Madame, so I can understand that, too! The downside is that precisely because she did, I can't.

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