A Trinity of Tuberose

–  reviews of Serge Lutens’ ‘Tubereuse Criminelle’, Èditions Frédéric Malle ‘Carnal Flower’ & Exotic Island Perfumes ‘Flor Azteca’.

And the Jessamine faint, and the sweet tuberose, the sweetest flower for scent that blows.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Sensitive Plant

I’ve been arguing with Shelley’s ghost for hours now. He really needs to lay off that laudanum simply for calling tuberose ‘the sweetest flower’.

There is nothing – I’d like to repeat that for emphasis – nothing in the slightest bit sweet about tuberose. It is a most dangerous, perditious bloom, given to induce an urge for all sensuous pleasures, usually the kind that will end in tears the next morning and maybe smiles in forty years if you’re very, very lucky.

It was once said of prim Victorian matrons in the British Raj era of India that they forbade their marriageable daughters to even sniff tuberose lest they get ideas, ideas of a kind where the glories of the British empire would be the last thing on their impressionable minds. Likewise, at the opulent court of Louis XIV, tuberose hedges were planted alongside the colonnade of the Grand Trianon at the behest of his mistress Madame de Montespan. So powerful, so heady were these rows of innocent white flowers when they bloomed even hardened, cynical courtiers would swoon in defeat. In India, tuberose garlands are used to adorn brides in all their finery, presumably – and in sharp contrast to those proper Victorian matrons – to give the brides a few…ideas! You don’t mess with a flower the canny Indians dubbed Rajnigandha in Hindi, or… ‘night blooming’. Many, many wonders only happen after dark…

Tuberose. Love it or hate it, it is a note and a flower unlike any other. Polianthes tuberosa, which originated in Mexico, has been used in perfumery as a middle note for a very long time, with more or less restraint, for something about this audacious flower and its bold, erotic, otherworldly beauty tends to throw restraint by the wayside and to hell with all consequences. It blends well with a few of its headier ladies-in-waiting, jasmine and orange blossom not least, but something magical – and nearly fatal – happens when the tuberose is placed in a lead role front and center in a perfume, something that elevates it far beyond a heart note and deep into territory Louis XIV’s courtiers were surely familiar with. Call it…

Knock them dead and wipe them up!

Arguably the most famous tuberose-centric perfume ever created is Robert Piguet’s Fracas by Germaine Cellier, a staple of divas everywhere since its creation in 1947. So famous is Fracas, it has become almost a reference point for any tuberose perfume, usually to the detriment of anything it’s compared to. I’ll come right out and say it – I adore Fracas. I will also say that the reason I adore it now is less for being a tuberose perfume and more for the artistry of its construction. Fracas is Tuberose with an Entourage, an entourage of equally fabulous florals who each shine their Klieg lights on Her Serene Empress of Tuberose. Beyond beautiful, oh yes. But not my favorite tuberose.

For since a little more than a year ago, I have since discovered three more tuberoses – and these have for different reasons purloined that knock-them-dead heart I didn’t even know I had.

You may beg to disagree. You may – as even I once did – hate, detest and loathe tuberose. Or else – I’ve heard this happens, too – be frightened if not intimidated by the wonders that lurk in those moonlight petals. Tuberose makes no excuses. Wear wisely!

This trinity of tuberose – all different and all unique expressions of a single flower – is my testament to a flower that gives even this cynic all sorts of…ideas!

The Lethal Jolie Laide

Serge Lutens’ ‘Tubéreuse Criminelle’ (Lutens/Sheldrake)

Tubéreuse Criminelle, one of the most celebrated of tuberose perfumes in the past twenty years, was – and still is – a most divisive perfume. There can be no middle ground, no compromises with this Madame, you are with her or against her, but you will not be indifferent to her!

I hated it when I first tried it, hated it with a fury I usually reserve for run-of-the-mill department store scents, hated it so passionately, there was surely some kind of debauched love letter lurking underneath the vitriol. For M. Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake chose a uniquely alternate route in creating their ode to tuberose…they chose to take it apart and shine a spotlight on all that makes tuberose so compelling and even, dare I write it, repulsive. Yes. I did say repulsive.

Depending on your frame of reference, it will begin with a shocking blast of…gasoline? Camphor? Thick, scorched rubber? Mentholated mothballs, as one character describes it in my novel ‘Quantum Demonology’, and that’s as apt a description as any. Eucalyptus, spearmint or wintergreen…Madame Tubéreuse is all of these in the bloom itself, and all its sparkling, malevolent facets reach out to grab you by the nose and…throttle you. I was so utterly shocked the first time I tried it, I had to sit down. I then proceeded to turn green. I ran to scrub it off. It took five tries, five hysterical fits of pique and five minuscule sprays before everything changed, the world tilted on its axis and I was forever lost, lost in a dream of tuberose, taken apart by the seams by these two master couturiers of perfumery and made entirely new.

For right when you are about to give it up, surrender to this vegetal, veritable monster, the miracle happens. Slowly, like fireworks fading in the sky, the gasoline/burnt rubber/wintergreen/camphor recede to a dim memory of something unpleasant, you just can’t quite remember what it was.

You have forgotten, because now, Madame reveals her moonlit, peerless beauty one petal, one veil, one secret at a time, opening up and up and up until the angels sing and the flower sparkles like a peerless, fragrant diamond. The ‘criminelle’ is only that Madame hides her beauty so well in the èlan of her opening, yet once she blooms, she never fades.

Her lethal allure means that once is one time too many, and twice is never enough. Such is my tubéreuse debauchery now, I have been known to apply again and again, simply for that wintergreen, addictive, electric jolt to my senses. And for that unearthly, ghostly flowery carpet that awaits behind it to enfold me in her embrace.

The California Girl

Editions Frederic Malle ‘Carnal Flower’ (Dominique Ropion)

Carnal Flower, another justly celebrated tuberose, is an altogether more …benign tuberose. I say that knowing full well that so far as tuberose is concerned, there really is no such thing as ‘benign’, yet nevertheless, although it is a happy, beachy, breezy, tropical tuberose, it is still…a heady, intoxicating, man-eating femme fatale of a perfume. But it is oh, so nice about its wicked ways, so sweetly accented with ylang ylang and coconut, so carefree with its hints of orange blossom and a whisper of animal musk, you might as well have Beulah peel you another grape and give up your gripes. Meanwhile, you are as happy-go-lucky as any flawless California blonde ever kissed by a sunbeam and weaned on good vibrations, reeling in all sorts of Big Kahunas marine and otherwise with no trouble and less effort than it takes to swing that gleaming mane of yours and marvel that life really can be perfect and even be a beach, too, in Hawaii or Malibu…or an overlooked spot near the far chillier Baltic. Palm trees are optional. The tropical, sunshine dreams are included in the bottle for a price, but don’t all perfect fantasies have those?

The Feral Jungle Bloom

‘Flor Azteca’, by The Exotic Island Perfumer (Juan M. Perez)

Here’s one of the greatest discoveries I’ve made since first beginning this blog – and the totally tubular <cough> part is…you have likely never heard of him! The fabled wonders of Juan M. Perez, a perfumer based in Puerto Rico, were unknown to me until recently, when I received a package as part of my participation in the Primordial Scents project. (More on that coming very soon!) By rights, I should have reserved my review until I wrote about the project, but this wonder is such a stunner, I can’t keep it secret any longer. Rooting through that box of epic perfumed marvels, I came across a beautifully presented little box, and lo and behold…it contained a tuberose perfume unlike anything – or anyone’s – I had ever encountered before.

Flor Azteca – a tribute to the original tuberose of the Aztec, who called it the marvelously euphonious ‘omixochitl’, or ‘bone flower’ for its pure white blooms – is what I can only describe as a feral tuberose, as wild at heart as the jungle it perfumes.

This tuberose is not tamed, not orderly, neither coiffed nor manicured into tuberose submission, if there even were such a thing, and we all know there isn’t. It’s much as I imagine a tuberose might have been one fatal night some poor conquistador got lost in the jungle, more than a little terrified of all the strange noises and ominous slithers in the dark, when suddenly, he came across a flower like no other, a perfume like the breath of an angel – or a demon waiting to pounce – gleaming in a pool of moonlight reflected in a jaguar’s eyes. You may read this as hyperbole pure and simple. Yet I tell you, I who have sniffed many things and many great – it isn’t.

Juan M. Perez took tuberose and swathed it in its native jungle ambience, with notes of chocolate and massoia bark, ginger and pepper, vanilla and benzoin and more who-cares-this-is-genius notes and let it bloom as it pleased one moonbeam night, as wild, as breathtaking, as free and as feral as a jaguar on the prowl. I realized recently that for all my love of tuberose as a note, I’ve never had a chance to smell the flower itself (one local florist said he wouldn’t order any for me when I asked, because they stank up the whole shop!), but if there really is divinity on Earth, and if angels really do breathe, then I beseech the grace of Oxomoco, the Aztec Goddess of night, please, let the tuberose smell like this!

It’s just…that kind of flower, both perfume and passion, both earthy and divine and not entirely of this world. It can be frightening and flawless, but it will never, ever leave you indifferent to its wonders!

Notes for Tubéreuse Criminelle: Tuberose, orange blossom, jasmine, musk, styrax, nutmeg, clove, hyacinth

Notes for Carnal Flower: Bergamot, melon, eucalyptus, ylang ylang, tuberose, jasmine, salicylates, coconut, musk, orange blossom absolute

Notes for Flor Azteca: Mexican tuberose, massoia bark, chocolatl (sic), tuberose absolute, magnolia, datura, fresh ginger, pepper, Mexican vanilla, benzoin, tonka bean, copal negro, smoky woods, mineral notes.

With profound thanks to Christos of Memory of Scent, to Ruth for graciously assisting this thoroughly damned perfumoholic pauper in her perdition, and to Monica Miller, who knows the great stuff when she sniffs it!

Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’ is available from the Serge Lutens website (for European customers) and from Luckyscent.

Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle ‘Carnal Flower’ is available from the website.

Discover the marvels of Juan M. Perez’ magical making here.

25 thoughts on “A Trinity of Tuberose

  1. Wonderful review, T., filled with such beautiful writing. You and Shelley have a lot in common. 🙂 And thanks for reviewing the “feral tuberose”, Flor Azteca. Definitely adding that to my list.

    1. I think Flor Azteca should be on everyone’s list! And I predict that Juan M. Perez will be a smash, once the word gets out about him and people try for themselves how incredible his talent is! 🙂

  2. Wonderful! I agree with you completely about all of them, being a tubey freak myself. You have captured the individual characters of these perfumes perfectly.

    Flor Azteca brought me to my knees the first time I smelled it, and I MUST have more! Juan Perez is a formidable talent.

  3. My Dear Sheila, I could send you a tuberose bulb- then your own potted wonder will eventually bloom for you! Tuberose really does smell like Flor Azteca- you will find her intact and perfect in this scent. Carnal Flower doesn’t ruin it either. Pleeaassse don’t ask my opinion on the hospital- bandage- antiseptic wash smelling TC! guk!

    I couldn’t WAIT to share Flor Azteca with you!!! Juan Perez is a genius. I know that this particular perfume will gain it’s rightful name next to these other two CF and TC as equal (better than TC but that’s my op). All Tuberose lovers must have a bottle of Flor Azteca!

    1. Dear M, that tuberose bulb would be the wonder of my potted plants! (My thumbs are not so black as once they were! 😉 ) TC..well, as I said, it’s divisive. But how I do love it…;-) As for Juan’s indisputable talent – surely, he’s a cult secert that won’t be so secret for very much longer?

  4. Your post is so timely! I kept my vial of tuberose absolute at arm’s length for years because I always found the scent to be too overpowering. But I took it out the other night because I felt compelled to capture the fragrance of some gardenia blossoms I had picked earlier. What I blended had some gardenia qualities, but was more about the tuberose itself. Juan Perez’ interpretation, especially the notes you listed, resonated with my explorations and I’m finding myself less repulsed and more intrigued with this flower. I wonder what those Indian brides felt when they were finally able to smell tuberose on their wedding night . . .

    1. Maggie…I wonder too about those Indian brides…;) If you possibly can, you should try Flor Azteca…and if that’s too hard, I’ll see what I can do. I guarantee – tuberose won’t be quite the same again! 🙂

  5. As you know, I’m a tuberose kind of gal, so I will make it a point to seek out Flor Azteca. “Feral tuberose” with chocolate, ginger, benzoin (not to mention the other notes) … whoa! Slay me!!! 😉

  6. I’ve rarely sought out tuberose scents — though I like the scent, I haven’t felt diva-ish enough to pull them off, but a recent encounter with vintage Chloe (by Lagerfeld) awakened my interest.

    Now, after sampling Treazon, a yet-to-be-released scent by Ayala Moriel, I may have developed a craving. It’s gorgeous, with (among other notes) a rich cinnamon and wintergreen in the opening, the oh so blissful tuberose absolute, and benzoin, vanilla and massoia bark in the drydown. And, contrary to my experience with many naturals, it lasts a wonderfully long time.

    Apparently she now has samples available on her site (I have no affiliation beyond supporting my local perfumer), with the bottle release planned for December.

    1. Ayala Moriel is another perfumer the world deserves to know more about, Lindaloo – I completely agree! I’d be most intrigued to sniff her interpretation of tuberose! As I suspect you would be to sniff Juan’s! 🙂

    2. Oooo, massoia, I love massoia, and with tuberose, that’s going to be some intense stuff! Ayala’s work is brilliant, I’ll have to seek this one out.

  7. Boneflowers is right, they are seriously scary blooms! And if any flower feels immortal both in the good and bad ways, it’s tuberose, isn’t it? I’ve only tried TC of the three you reviewed, and I love it. It reminds me the most of fresh tuberose, even though it’s not a literal interpretation, and it’s got the scary side down for sure. I also love the traditional tuberose attars from India, distilled with either sandalwood or, even better and scarier, vetiver! It’s just wild stuff. I also loved Olivia G’s “Vamp a NY”- it was tuberose with a seriously fun vibe, tuberose goes to South Beach and has…a little too much fun!

    1. I agree with you on TC and the ‘scary’ part! 🙂 I received a sample of VàNY a long, long time ago, before I came all the way around to the idea of tuberose, and it didn’t work for me then. Maybe I should have given it another chance…;-) Thank you for the reminder!

  8. Well, D*MN IT.

    You know I love me some tuberose. But I do NOT love me some chocolate – in my perfumes, anyway – and I have been resisting the temptation to Just Go And Order Some Juan Perez Samples Already. I blame Donna (Flora, who shares a lot of my tastes!), and now I can blame you too.

    Incidentally, I really liked the wintergreeny/camphor bit of Tube Criminy; what did me in was the rotting-meat thing. It doesn’t always hit me in white florals, which happens to be one of my very favorite categories of scent, but when it does, WHOA MAMA GAGFEST. I had, unfortunately, been cleaning out my refrigerator a few days before I tested TC, and had come across a forgotten package of raw chicken. I will say no more about that.

    It’s so funny to me that Carnal Flower carries a tropical fantasy with it for you – I find it cold and green and breathtakingly gorgeous. Almost… briskly heady, if that makes any sense at all. Of course, since the circumstances under which I test perfumes seem to matter to my experience, here I will admit that I first tried CF on a bitterly, cracklingly cold winter day, a day on which warm human breath condensed in the air and then fell, tinkling, to the ground as it literally froze. CF always brings with it that crispness of chilly air, no matter when I wear it now. I have a small decant, which I treasure.

    Vamp a NY – now that’s a tropical beachy fantasy tuberose, if you like. I happen to be wearing it today, and it is so gorgeous. Can’t wear it in the winter, though, it’s too (ahem) trashy.

    1. I’d have to say, Mals – even with your antipathy/loathing of chocolate as a note – you might want to reconsider. For this chocolate is more of an edgy, bitter cocoa powder, a faint background whisper and not sweet at all. CF – yes, that’s Hawaii in a bottle for me – strange, isn’t it, how our associations are so different! I really need to try VàNY again – it didn’t work the last time, but my tastes have changed quite a bit since then! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s