Dianthus in Abstract

– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Vitriol d’Œillet’

Life, John Lennon said once, is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. For my first review since Tuesday and some badly needed days off, I had, don’t you know, other plans…Plans to do a grab bag of mini reviews of whatever random samples my greedy little hands hauled out of the ‘yet to try’ cakebox, just so I could ease myself into the swing of things again. That should teach me.

Once in a while, something happens in a stop-press moment, where you just have to give up, give in and roll with it. Like yesterday, when the only thing in my mailbox was a plain padded envelope postmarked Paris, and I just knew it…drop everything, stop the press, OMG!!!….it’s le nouveau Serge Lutens…Vitriol d’Œillet!

Understand, I don’t do this for just anyone. But if I can blame any perfume house for my slippery slide into Vice I Can Ill Afford, it would be Serge Lutens. It was M. Lutens and his eponymous perfumes that reeducated my nose and realigned my amygdala and made me appreciate things I could have sworn I hated until that day I didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t even live without them.

So there I was yesterday afternoon, dancing around my living room like a Red Injun on the warpath with this plain white envelope. Breaking my rule of one perfume free day a week to clear my nose, tearing it open, yes, that’s what it is, extricating that tiny little sample vial and applying a discreet spray and…


I had to sit down. I had to sit down for a moment, take a deep breath or two, a sniff or three at my wrist, and… laugh.

Laugh, because once again a Lutens perfume has pulled the rug from beneath my feet and foiled all my expectations and misconstrued ideas as to what an ‘angry carnation’ might be. If press releases and debates among perfumistas were anything to go by, this could be the most exciting thing to happen to carnation since…CdG Series 2 Red maybe? Poison, vitriol, acid, caustic, passion…there was no shortage of adjectives and similes on several social networks as to what an ‘angry carnation’ might be.

In my own head, I had an idea that it might be something the editor in my story, nicknamed ‘Caustic Cyd’, would wear for intimidation purposes.

Instead, I had a bad fit of the giggles. I always had an idea there were puns in those bottles and not just their names but puns of an olfactory kind, an unexpected twist on expectations as to what a perfume can be without ever compromising on a vision, a bit of strange, another, more compelling kind of beauty.

Carnations have all sorts of connotations, political, personal or in perfumes. Once upon a time, said Theophrastus, they were sacred to Zeus/Jupiter, later they were purloined and dyed green by the aesthetes of Oscar Wilde’s age (There’s a wicked parody in Robert Hichens’ book ‘The Green Carnation’), used as a symbol of a mother’s love, or in wedding bouquets to symbolize love, fascination and distinction, or alternately, if they’re variegated, an elegant way to say ‘your love cannot be returned.’

Trust the French to put another twist on the carnation. Purple carnations in France are traditionally used in funerals and symbolize misfortune and bad luck.

This vitriol of carnation is dyed a delicate, rather wistful violet hue…

First, forget everything you’ve heard. In fact, forget everything you know about carnation and carnation perfumes. The glories of, say, Caron’s ‘Tabac Blond’, or their famous carnation soliflore ‘Bellodgia’, forget Floris’ ‘Malmaison’, forget Nina Ricci’s ‘L’Air du Temps’ or Etro’s ‘Dianthus’. Please do forget the clove/cinnamon RedHot that is the Comme des Garcons’ Red Series version. Vitriol is nothing like it, and like none of them. It doesn’t have the vintage perfume-y vibe of Tabac Blond or Bellodgia, nor the lush floral bouquet of L’Air du Temps, and certainly not, at least to my nose, anything remotely resembling RedHot. It doesn’t smell old-fashioned in the slightest, and it doesn’t smell like anything else modern, either.

It starts out with a searing punch in the nose of pepper, black pepper, the sweeter and softer pink pepper, and an airy, fragrant carnation as they once were in some expensive florist’s, as cool and as fresh as the dew that still clings to those pinked petals. I do mean it smells fresh, and I do mean it is cool, but wait for it, this is a Lutens, after all, and soon enough, a fiery sotto voce whisper of cayenne pepper kicks up its heels and dances out into the limelight for a pas de deux cancan with that frilly flower as it whirls around and around a still clove center that spins it like a pinwheel. Now peppery, now fiery, now with a slight touch of dentist’s office and oil of cloves, but even as it heats up, it also manages to keep its cool. If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s precisely the kind of contradiction no other perfume house does quite so elegantly.

As it dries down, the clove grows stronger and a bit more emphatic, the nutmeg and the cayenne add a slightly human touch before fading away to a cool, powdery, nutmeg-woody whisper of past dreams of pinks. No floral notes are listed, so I must be imagining that light touch of rose and something that could be a suggestion of violet or is it orris for that melancholy air, that wistful, final wink of fire and pepper.

This won’t knock anyone sideways with sillage, so if that’s what you expect, you will be disappointed.

I can honestly say I wasn’t. Easily unisex, easily wearable, and easily blowing my preconceptions to frilly smithereens, it took me a while to understand the joke. The vitriol is that this is an abstract carnation, a deconstructed dianthus, taken apart to atoms and rebuilt from scratch into another, different kind of pink, an unusual carnation with tiny cayenne teeth to remind you that no matter how beautiful, no matter what color or associations you find in those toothsome petals, it still has enough fire to punch you in the nose if it so pleases!

Nothing like a carnation with an attitude problem. ‘Caustic Cyd’ wouldn’t wear this, but I certainly would, at the drop of a violet carnation…

Notes: Nutmeg, clove, black pepper, pink pepper, cayenne pepper.

‘Vitriol d’Œillet’ is in the export line of Serge Lutens perfumes, and will be made available worldwide in September. For European customers, It can be bought now from the Serge Lutens website.

20 thoughts on “Dianthus in Abstract

  1. Wow! Now I'm even more excited to try this. I was hoping for a bit of that antiqued carnation found in something like Tabac Blond, but it sounds like I'm in for a different sort of treat. 🙂

  2. I love the idea of tiny cayenne teeth – looking forward to smelling this one when it comes out my way 🙂

  3. Aaargh!
    And my sample still hasn't arrived! I want to try it as soon as possible as it seems opinions vary and I want to form my own. 🙂

  4. So pleased to hear you like this after Victoria's disappointment on Bois de Jasmin. I have not been this eager for a new release since, er, Jeux de Peau! Adore carnation essential oil but never found the carnation perfume for me. Perhaps an adjustment of expectation regarding an “angry carnation” will help me better appreciate this when my sample arrives.

  5. Gotta say it, Carrie…this is nothing like the opulence of Tabac Blond in the slightest. (and you know I love it as you do!) But make no mistake…it IS a treat – of a very unexpected kind!

  6. Dee…'kicky' is one way to describe the opening! Hang in there, so far as I know, it will be available at LuckyScent in September. Now, if only someone could locate me a sample of 'De Profundiis'…a 'fume from beyond the grave…;)

  7. Ines, of course you want to form your own opinion! I read GrainDeMusc's review, and I read Victoria's at Bois de Jasmin, and I didn't know WHAT to think, or what to expect, but whatever it was, it wasn't that, either! That's half the thrill!

  8. Tara…any new Lutens tends to have that 'antsy-can't-wait-to-try' anticipation all over it, doesn't it?

    I very, very much liked Jeux de Peau, as you know, but in all honesty, I like Vitriol better.

    I wonder what you might think of it?

  9. Ah, Muse…I would recommend you try it, really! hang in there. hon, it should be out in the US by September…and if you do like it enough, I know a certain blogger who'd kill for a decant…;)

  10. I got my sample today! Carnation is a lot more elusive to me. Certainly not vitriolic and yes, it is fresh out of the florist's refrigerator. However when my friend smelled it on his hand he exclaimed: “Poison!” and he didn't know the name of the fragrance! Go figure….

  11. Strange, Memory, how perfume associations work, isn*t it? One person's carnation is another person's Poison! 🙂
    But wasn't it a BIG surprise? Incidentally, I agree with you – it has an hourglass construction – starts out broad, narrows, expands again…How Christopher Sheldrake does it, I don't know, but he's certainly a genius…

  12. I adore carnations. I adore pinks and sweet william. My husband brings my carnations, not those crummy scentless roses. I carried carnations on my wedding day…
    carnation perfumes smell awful on me!!!

    I'm very intrigued by VdO. I wasn't until I read your review. All that hot and cold business really turns my interest level up to 11 !

  13. JoanElaine…if you can take apart everything you know about carnation perfumes and reconstruct them into smething else entirely, add that touch of hot and cool…you would have an idea of VdO. I love carnations, too (so long as they're not variegated!!!) So whaddaya know…live a little dangerously! Give it a whirl!

  14. Undina – do try it! Because you never know…which is at least half the thrill of Serge Lutens!

    As for me, I'd kill to get my hands on a sample of De Profundis, and I'm no fan of chrysanthemum, except in fireworks…;-)

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