In Pantherine Ink

junglepanther

 – a review of Serge Lutens’ Sarrasins

Once a creature of fable lived, old stories tell, and some say it was a very large, most fearsome cat, and some say it was an animal of another kind, but all of them agree it emanated a most singular and exceptional perfume, so sweet, so utterly delicious no animal save the dragon was ever able to resist it (why that was, they never tell), and all who encountered it were only compelled by that scent to follow it where it went.

Other tales say it was sacred to the god Dionysus, and whispered the incredible, that he rode it to his rites, so that all who breathed in the aura of his mount would follow deeper into the forest, and return with tales of divine madness and sublime mayhem, inspired by the perfume exuded by this being they called… panther.

I’ve wondered what that panther’s scent might be, wondered as I’ve sniffed and breathed and marveled through the many perfumes I’ve met whether this one or that would pass for a fabled panther’s emanations. So many were too dark or too light, promised everything yet delivered not nearly enough. I thought I would never find it.

I forgot that cardinal rule, you see – you never find such wonders so much as they find you.

Until that fabled night I came home to a fragrant letter from a friend and fellow writer to find a little vial of panther’s ink labelled simply… Sarrasins.

Jasmine is one of the Big White Divas of perfumery, that potent trio of orange blossom, tuberose, and jasmine, blooming its almost wanton, lascivious scent only at night, a scent that spans the range from fruity to floral coloratura soprano all the way to …horse stables. It takes no prisoners, leaves no one indifferent to its presence or able to ignore it. It dances well with rose and orange blossom and even with a great deal of care with the feral tuberose, but sweetest of all to my own mind is when jasmine is allowed to take center stage on her own and unfold in all her moonlit glories.

This far north, it’s much too cold for a jasmine to grow outside the greenhouse as it does elsewhere, and what most of my compatriots know as ‘jasmine’ is really mock orange or philadelphus which blooms at Midsummer and wafts a felicitous blend of verdant jasmine and orange blossom combined, yet it is no jasmine, has none of those indolic, heady, licentious threads that lead our minds down other garden paths and gives the epithet it has in both India and all over the Middle East – ‘the perfume of love.’

Would this Saracen secret in its tiny spray vial be that fabled panther’s aura, would I find an arcane epiphany inside its inky, Oriental purple-black depths?

An admonition was written on the vial. ‘DO NOT SPRAY!’ In capital letters, as if my faraway friend would not be held accountable for any fatal consequences if I did.

Naturally that only meant I had to spray, was indeed compelled to spray, all consequences be as doomed as I surely would.

Let M. Lutens tell the tale of Sarrasins:

Applied at night in a Moorish silence, it barely touches the skin before it starts to resonate, like a ritual conducted in gilded surroundings.

I sprayed that first night and many times since in a Nordic quietude, but resonate, it certainly does.

Sarrasins is no perfume of light and sunshine to my nose. Instead, it rushes out to greet you with a metaphorical bruise, purple on the skin, as if writing with calligraphy flourishes and indelible, unforgettable ink:

This is no ordinary jasmine.

Indeed, how could these Saracens be otherwise with this fruity, fragrant grape juice bruise that marks you so painlessly and far too late, too late before it vanishes before your eyes and yet…the deed is done, that bruise was there. As it disappears into a full moon midnight, you have been marked with a jasmine.

Such a one, and such a wonder, it unfolds a little at a time and all across its hours. The accumulated light and sweetness of the midday sun is here released only after dark, and heady, lush indolic pleasures, too. As it sings and blooms, it becomes airier, lighter and ethereal as the radiant shimmer on a moth’s wings, caught in the act of drinking in its floral secrets. The fruity bruise of the beginning becomes sweeter, denser and even more intoxicating, making you that moonlit moth, resonating from soul to heart and bloom to bloom with all the promise and portent jasmine is and maybe should be. The notes say carnation, yet my nose says osmanthus, a honeyed, silk organza overlay of sunshine memory that blows so softly away in the breeze, but the hour is too late, your doom is so close, your initiation from neophyte to zealous acolyte of that dark, complex heart of jasmine is nearly complete.

This ominous night is not over yet, the rite is not finished, there is one secret still to be revealed and one midnight-black candle yet to burn.

What I sense is no relation to any myths or fairy tales the notes deceive me with, but a texture between black glove leather, suede and thick-piled velvet all combined. This is an animal purr at a baritone pitch and timbre that tells that long ago story of a fabled beast they called the panther, rarely seen unless in fleeting glimpses in the forests in elegant, louche repose belying all its feral strength, scarcely known except as legend. A legend believed only by the credulous, the dreamers, the poets and the writers of impossible tales of improbable perfumes who are compelled by alchemical wiles, an occult sleight of hand and… a jasmine.

If ever a perfume could somehow embody that panther’s scent, a perfume to compel all who encounters it to follow where it leads, to glimpse into that secret midnight bloom and that gilded hidden knowledge, that writes its arcane soul on your skin in pantherine ink, surely, it would be a purple black and painless perfumed bruise known as …Sarrasins.

Sarrasins, created in 2007 by Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake, is available for European customers as a Palais Royal exclusive bell jar, and at Barneys NY.

Notes: jasmine, carnation, woods, musk, coumarin, patchouli.

With love,  thanks and eternal gratitude to Christos of Memory of Scent for the initiation, and to Ruth for sealing my doom –  with a jasmine.

21 thoughts on “In Pantherine Ink

  1. I have never tried Sarrasins. I only know a couple of Paris Exclusives. What I know is that there are not many Lutens perfumes that I can actually wear.

    1. They do take some olfactory recalibration, don’t they? 😉 If I have a problem with Serge Lutens, it’s only that I can happily wear…far too many far too well! 🙂

      1. If I could ever point at a defining moment in my long journey to perfumista status, it surely began with Serge Lutens. I dreamed about those perfumes for over seven years before I ever tried them, but if any house in particular (not counting the usual suspects) redefined for me what perfume is, it was Serge Lutens. Admired, loved, hated, worn and adorned.

  2. I finally tried Sarrasins for the first time this year, and it’s everything you so eloquently speak of – inky, sinuous, seductive, magical. Wonderful description!

  3. Sarrasins remains the only jasmine scent I like. It smells somehow “wilder” than the other jasmines I’ve tried. In all fairness, I’m not really a floral perfume wearer, I much more gravitate to Lutens’ woody spicy resinous scents.

    1. I agree with you, Julie – there’s nothing in the slightest bit ‘tame’ about Sarrasins. I do have to say that when Luteyns and Sheldrake create a floral perfume, it’s never like any other floral…;)

  4. Sheila, this is certainly one of your most magical reviews ever. And it is in sync with what I’ve been digging the past year – I have finally become a jasmine fan. Oh, and you think you smell osmanthus in this? Mmm, that seals it: I will definitely seek this out. Merci!

  5. Now that I am finally re-emerging from the empty, self-centred and self-pitiful murks that I have chosen to dwell it is time to thank you writing up this wonderful review for my beloved Sarrasins. I have likened its smell to the sweet smell of cat fur and I really don’t know if this is because of some ingredient or just because of the way this perfume conjures the spirit of the Panther.

    There are many different species of jasmine and sambac is usually the one used in many perfumes. I am not very fond of this. In Greece the most common species has 5 petals that have a slight purple hue towards the centre of the flower. I can assure you that it smells exactly like Sarrasins. Probably this is the same flower that inspired Serge during a Moorish night.

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