The Chill, Paradoxical Hand of Heat

–       a review of Serge Lutens’L’Eau Froide’

Among perfumistas, the degree of dedication is often delineated by our love of…’skank’, that handy catch-all phrase of all that is animal, dirty or even sexy in perfume. Civet, castoreum, musk and even cumin have all been used in perfumes for hundreds of years to denote a frisson of ardor and heated sensuality, something to bring out the inner animal hiding within. Many immortal pre-reformulation perfumes and even a few modern ones are testaments to ‘la bête sensuelle’, the sensual (if human) beast: Jicky and Shalimar, Bandit, the original Miss Dior and Bal à Versailles or even Francis Kurkdjian’s recent and audacious Absolue pour le Soir, all of them not so innocent at all!

Yet in the mainstream world since the Nineties, clean reigns supreme. Clean as in white musk, clean as in freshly laundered clothing, newly showered bodies…anything that elevates the human animal above its baser self into some rarified, intellectual level of being where we are all whiter than white, nearly abstract concepts, dreaming only the purest and most salient of dreams. It simply wouldn’t do to sully our surroundings with salacious, sexy scents, it was impolite to advertise any seductive intent in our scent trails, to blatantly lay claim to our own…bête humaine.

So while the world continued its love affair with hygiene and perfumes that accented the aquatic, ethereal and non-offensive, the alchemist duo of Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake were meanwhile creating fragrant, fevered odes to the Orient, the very antithesis of trends and fashions, all of which celebrated that inner animal we took such pains to conceal. Perfumes that were difficult and challenging, journeys to far and distant places under foreign heated suns, phantasms that always took you by surprise, that delivered the unexpected.

I’ve since come to discover that M. Lutens likes few things more than the element of surprise unless it would be olfactory puns, and should he be able to combine the two, then so much the better!

That became very clear (all puns intended) when L’Eau was released in 2010 to more or less universal disbelief in the perfume community. It seemed almost an act of sacrilege and betrayal – from the house that gave us so many outrageously opulent creations with all their many convoluted twists and turns of evolution came this ode to The Clean Machine, the very antithesis of all fumes Lutens.

One thing I will say – it got the perfume community talking! About such mundane banalities as laundry detergent, soap, spray starch – all those defining elements of ‘clean’ we tend to take so much for granted in our quotidian lives, and for a Lutens/Sheldrake creation, that was likely the worst sacrilege of all. Motives were discussed on perfume boards and blogs, howls were heard on all sides, and redemption didn’t entirely arrive until the release of the Palais Royal exclusive Boxeuses.

It was not that it was bad, not that it was generic (although many begged to disagree), but that it was a Lutens, and, so the mindset went, as such surely above such mainstream clichés?

I liked it so much, I drained both my samples. You see, I suspected – apart from M. Lutens’ definite sense of mischief in pulling out that Persian rug beneath our perfumed feet – that those outraged perfumoholics were missing a rather valid point – some days, sometimes, all you want to do is be clean and presentable and wear a perfectly ironed shirt, and let them think what they will. Life is quite complicated enough, thank you.

L’Eau to my unsophisticated nose was long-lasting, citrus-y and mint-inflected. It smelled like the very best quality soap you can imagine, a thick towel, and a perfectly ironed linen shirt you don after a long and wearing day and in one simple gesture, your sense of well-being returns. No thrills, no spills and no surprises, unless it was that flinty, mineral drydown that added a little extra steel to my spine. It got me compliments. More than anything else, it got me out the door in a lot less time, since I didn’t have to think which impression I wanted to make. It would be good. The rest – as even the concept behind it – was…immaterial.

Two years on, right when I’ve become accustomed to Oriental carpet rides in bottles and scented journeys through time and space, here we are again with ‘L’Eau Froide’, another angle on ‘clean’, only this time, those perfumed waters are so very, very cold…

With ‘L’Eau Froide’, the focus is on frankincense. Frankincense – one of my most favorite notes in perfume – is surely one of the most astounding materials known to man. The scraggly, unkempt tree of deep desert and rocky crags known as Boswellia comes in several varieties that are literally nothing at all alike. The same species of tree – say, Boswellia carterii – will be richly floral and lemony in Oman, resinous and pine-like in Yemen. Boswellia serrata, the frankincense of India, has an earthy, spicy, slightly patchouli facet.

The Boswellia sacra of Somalia which is highlighted in ‘L’Eau Froide’, unlike its siblings and cousins elsewhere for all it grows in similarly arid, hot locations, is the frankincense of… paradox. Its scent is literally glacial.

I’m lucky enough to have five different versions of frankincense to compare and even a small censer to burn them in. To make sure, I burned all five at different times: Hojari and Silver from Oman, Serrata from India, Carterii from Yemen and Sacra from Somalia. All were glorious, but only the Somali made my seven-year-old complain that it was ‘cold’.

I have no notes for ‘L’Eau Froide’ and so no expectations of trying to find elusive elements that may or may not be there. Instead, there is that same airy kick of citrus, a herbal element that could be rosemary and pine, a cool kiss of eucalyptus to wake you up and make you breathe it deeper. As it develops – which it does, slowly and stealthily – that chill frisson of frankincense comes forward on my skin, and it becomes far less soapy and much more mineral, with an earthy, pine forest feel that reminds me of the background taste of spring water, filtered through layers of stone and bubbling out its icy secrets for you to discover. That frigid frankincense is very much present throughout, and never loses that deathless desert chill until very much later, when musk finally manages to wrap its own warmth around it.

To my idiosyncratic nose, ‘L’Eau Froide’ is nothing like its more aquatic sibling, nor even anything like those many generic aquatic scents that pass for ‘masculine’ perfumes these days. It’s denser and richer and far more unique, definitely unisex.

Perfect for those days you need a little extra resolve, some added high grade steel in your spine, a touch of bright distance to let you concentrate on those all-important abstract tasks of your day, wrapped in that chilly, perfect paradox of heat.

I predict it will be used often precisely for those days I would prefer the world at a slight remove, the better to observe ‘la bête humaine’ in all its many guises and myriads of scents, the days when life becomes quite complicated enough, those days the writer watches life unfold around her for inspiration.

I also predict that not everyone will like it. It is indeed strange, it is indeed cold, it is a deep, deep breath by a hidden, secret spring, and not all secrets are always…appreciated!

As for the mischievous M. Lutens, we can only guess at his intention. But as he stated in the press release:

“I’d say it’s crystal clear.”

I have a giveaway! Leave a comment by midnight CET, Sunday the 26th of February for your chance to try ‘L’Eau Froide’ for yourself. A winner will be chosen by

L’Eau Froide is now available from the Serge Lutens website, and will be available worldwide in March.

Disclosure: My sample was provided for review by Serge Lutens.

35 thoughts on “The Chill, Paradoxical Hand of Heat

  1. I am a big fan of Lutens.. Cuir Mauresque and Rahat Loukoum are my favorites – but its quite interesting how they did the unexpected with L’eau. I have a feeling that L’eau Froid is going to be to Serge Lutens what Pure Shot is to A*men – cold and clean, something totally unexpected from the line.

    1. I’ve long ago come to…expect the unexpected with Serge Lutens. It’s one reason I love so many Lutens/Sheldrake creations – I never know what will happen, I never know how they will evolve, and that, I think, is half the thrill – besides their incredible, fatal beauty! I also love that M. Lutens does as he pleases and not what his fans expect – surely the sign of a true artist! Lastly, those olfactory puns…there is more than one laugh concealed in those bottles and bell jars! 😉

  2. I am dying to try this. I love frankincense and your description makes me think of when we were kids; in the winter we would pluck icicles to suck while playing outside. If you took them off a pine tree they would taste like frozen pine.

  3. Fab review S!

    No need to enter me in to the draw, I have a sample on its way.

    Like you, I quite liked L’Eau, it was a perfectly impartial perfume that smelled 1000 times better than a lot of the ‘clean’ things on the market.

    L’Eau Froide sounds wonderful, I can’t wait for my sample to arrive. Your description of frankincense as a contrast and ‘glacial’ is spot on.

    You have made me even more excited to try this than I thought I was.

    1. It was! I remember thinking at the time that I was the only one who really liked the original L’Eau – but this is much better – and still, 1000 times better than anything else “clean” being sold. Can’t wait to read what you think!

  4. I remember smelling L’Eau and thinking that it was not bad at all..Not very me- but it did remind me of what my sister used to call the ‘America smell’ when we were growing up, which basically referred to the ‘clean, expensive soap smell’ that some of the gifts we got from the States had..:)…

    I am a Lutens/Shedrake fan too and you have piqued my curiosity with your description of L’Eau froide- please enter me in the draw!

    1. The America smell! I love that! If it’s any consolation, Lavanya, this does share a few elements with the original, but thanks to that frankincense, it’s also very different! And I could wish it came in a soap! A very hyper-luxe soap, to be sure… 🙂

  5. YES! This is an amazing review. Evocative. Chill. 😉

    I can alllllllllmost smell this just from your writing, but please do enter me to try to win a sample anyway!


  6. Frankincense is one of my favorite notes too, although I’m pretty sure I’ve never smelled the Somali variety…
    This fragrance sounds interesting, and might be a contender for the upcoming hot, hot Texas summer 🙂

    1. Dee – if you’re looking for an unusual variety of bottled air conditioning, look no further! If this can’t cool off a Texas summer, I don’t know what can! 😉

  7. Sheila, yes please, put me in the draw! Your review of this one conjures up Sedona, Arizona in winter for me (and oh God, there is nothing like winter in the high desert! Snow is so dry it sublimes almost as soon as it hits the ground. Just a thin dusting of it on the red rocks and the pine trees). I guess it’s the dry cold aspect of L’Eau Froide that you describe that makes me think I’m going to love this. Beautiful review!!

    1. Suzanne – what a perfect analogy! Winter in high desert! I lived in New Mexico, and I know precisely what you mean – the Jemez and Sangre de Christos Mountains where I went hiking are a lot like – if not quite so spectacular – as Sedona. You have a lot to look forward to! 🙂

  8. Oh, you have me now eagerly awaiting the arrival of my sample! 🙂
    Sounds great even though my relatiosnhip with incense is rather tenuous.

    Btw, my boyfriend rocks l’Eau de SL. 🙂

    1. Ines – I can well imagine your boyfriend rocking L’Eau…he might rock this one, too although it wears well on both genders. I have to say it…this is not your usual incense, so you might like this one when other incense fragrances would be a bit much!

  9. please enter me in the draw…your description had me checking to see if Summer hadn’t turned into Winter over night lol. Samples of serge’s are not easy to obtain in Australia.

    1. Well, Saffy, deep as you are in the depths of an Antipodean summer – then keep your fingers crossed in the draw, and you might win some bottled air conditioning! 😉

  10. I eagerly await this launch. I enjoy L’eau too. It makes a nice appearance along the Lutens spectrum of creative fragrances that have a space and place in my wardrobe.

    1. It certainly does – not least for being a counterpoint to everything we thought we knew about ‘L’Oeuvre Lutens’. I liked the original – but I love this!

  11. Hi, I’d love to be entered in this draw. I have no idea what frankincense smells like, but maybe with this sample along with my sample of L’Eau I’ll be able to do the olfactorial equivalent of a triangulation and figure it out.

    1. Sigrun – that IS a definite shame tha you have never tried it. In Swedish, you are looking for “rökelse”. Some health food/aromatherapy stores might have censers and nuggets you can buy. Try it, and you will know in an instant why this is one of the oldest and most sacred elements of perfume…

  12. Thanks to Olfactoria and Twitter I discovered your blog today. This was some excellent writing! I only smelled L’eau on paper and was surprised that liked it, after all the bad press. This new one smells divine.

    On one particularly cold day recently I wore Parfums DelRae Bois de Paradis, which I find to be a cold fragrance. I was out runny errands, catching whiffs of it in the cold. It smelled downright icy. I loved the cold-on-cold effect.

  13. For lack of a better term, I have to use “WOW”. Being a South African I have never had the privilege to wrap my nose around anything by SL – quite a frustration after obsessing over and admiring the house for years. On a recent (first) trip to Paris, I was mortally disappointed to find the boutique closed. Still – peering in from the outside, it was everything – and more – than I had anticipated. With every good SL review I read I yearn even more to experience the fragrances.

  14. This is the first review of this that I read, while I am waiting for my sample to come. I am so excited that you liked because I love Uncle Serge so much that I only want to read good reviews. Not in a groupie kind of way. I just read so much of me into his perfumes that I feel like he is a member of the family. And, like you, I thought L’Eau Serge Lutens was genious: clean, with a touch of sinister. And I guess everyone has the right to try their creativity in uncharted (for them) territory.

    1. Christos, as a fellow Sergeoholic (is that a word? It is now! 😉 ) I know precisely what you mean! If you somehow get past the “perfume” part and into the art itself, the execution, the concept, the very idea – all of it somehow transcends “perfume” and becomes, well…personally primeval, maybe? I don’t know quite how else to articulate it – but I know that sense of connection, that common spark that travels, the one that makes you say ‘Uncle Serge‘, because I see him that way, too! Nothing quite defines me – or you! – quite like a Lutens will! I say to you that if you thought the original L’Eau was genius, then you are in for a treat! This is crystalline love – at least for me! And I can’t wait to read what you think of it when you try! A true artist will do as he or she is compelled, to explore something new, since that is how discoveries are made!

      1. My sample has arrived now I know what it smells like. I like the opening but the rest failed to capture my imagination the same way that L’Eau Serge Lutens did.

  15. Goodness, now you’ve made me curious, and I had been ready to write this off. I hated L’Eau Serge, and not because I hate all clean scents, and not because it did anything like ruin some image I had of Lutens’s style. I just happened to not like that version of clean laundry musk at all. There are a handful I quite like.

    In any case, this spin on frankincense sounds so interesting. I’d love to be in the draw. Thanks!

  16. I’m a new fan of Serge Lutens (Nuit de cellophane) and am so excited to try more! Please enter me in the drawing!

  17. Oh this sounds fascinating! I’ve always associated frankincense with ‘warm,’ this is a new concept to me. I would love to try it, thank you for the draw!

  18. this sounds so interesting, thanks for the review
    I would love to be able to try it since it’s the first time, in my knowledge, that incense is treated as cooling- as for the use of it, I may need such a fragrance in the coming( rough) months

    thanks a lot for the draw

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