The Cat’s Pyjamas

beachpjs2 copy

– a review of Jean Patou Collection Héritage Chaldée

Sometimes, it happens that curiosity will kill a cat. In April this year, during lockdown, my curiosity was literally killing me.

I had an upcoming birthday. I had a perfume collection I dearly loved and still do. Except my collection was feeling a bit tired. I felt – it’s always a feeling, more than a fact – I needed something new, something revelatory, something I wouldn’t ordinarily consider.

For that, imagination is required.

Not long after, I found myself on an online retailer specializing in cosmetics, toiletries and perfumes. Beelining straight for the perfumes, I found the perfumes of Jean Patou, or to be more specific, the Collection Héritage, a series of recreated/resurrected Patou classics that once upon a storied time in the Eighties were dubbed Ma Collection. My trackpad skidded to a stop.

I had no particular relationship with Patou perfumes. My perfumaniac mother once wore Joy for a time, and although I can see what made Joy so great, that epiphany was not for me. Nor Sublime, nor even 1000.

Pulsing gold and black on my screen was another Patou in an elegant, rounded bottle, a Patou, I came to discover, with a storied heritage and a drop-dead aura, at a price even this dinosaur student pauper could afford for her birthday. Something nudged my intuition with a cattle prod, something triggered all my best or worst history/archeology nutcase urges.

It was Chaldée.

In less time than it takes to say eau de parfum, I was all over Google searching for reviews and opinions and research.

Two reviews in particular gave me pause for thought, both from reviewers I sincerely respect and always read. The first was Colognoisseur, whose review with comparisons between the vintage and the recreation made me very, very nervous.

The second was Persolaise, whose rapturous review was no help at all. It wasn’t the first time one of his reviews awakened all my lemming dragons, and I’ll bet it won’t be the last.

This was a perfume itch I really needed to scratch. So I bought it. My country was still in lockdown at the time, I was bored out of my gourd with Google Meet classes, and more than a little jittery at the thought of two huge impending (virtual) exams.

On the day it arrived, I suspect you could have smelled me from the moon.

Chaldée – or Chaldea, as it’s known in English, was once the storied province between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, whose capitol was Babylon, and a province that by association became famous for ancient, arcane secrets and magic. Indeed, the three wise men of the Nativity were known as Magi, a class of priests and conjurors native to Chaldea renowned throughout the ancient world. It is a land of searing heat, history and duststorms, temporally remote enough to conjure up any number of ancient, arcane secrets and reveries.

Let me take you through time, now to the seminal year and late summer of 1924, when Coco Chanel created a scandal by returning from a vacation “as dark brown as a sailor”, as one journalist stated at the time.

By 1925, fashionable ladies everywhere were working on achieving that all-over golden summer glow. Which was around the time Jean Patou – a designer no less influential than Mlle Chanel – decided to do something about it. He had by that time invented what we know today as sportswear, bathing suits emphatically included, and concocted a suntan oil which he gave to his clients. By 1927, those same clients were begging him to turn that delicious suntan oil into a perfume, and with the help of his perfumer Henri Alméras, Chaldée the perfume was born.

You have to remember, these were decades before beachy perfumes were a thing. There was no Bronze Goddess to anoint yourself with (never mind SPF 50), no Azurée, no Bobbi Brown Beach, no Fire Island.

Chaldée was a smash success. So much, that when the line was relaunched in the early 1980s, Chaldée was one of the fabled Patou perfumes they chose to resurrect.

Finding one of those 1980s bottles today will cost you a small fortune, if you can even find one. I’m not one to dismiss makeovers of either persons or perfumes, and this review, just to be clear, is based on the current 2013 iteration.

Another jump, hop and skip through time brings us to 2013, when the perfumer Thomas Fontaine created the fourth incarnation of Chaldée.

The Chaldée I bought blind as a treat in an unnerving, lonely time. Surrounded by a nebula of Chaldée, something in my world made sense again. I would conquer history, I would conquer pedagogy and teacher professionalism, hell, I’d just go right out and conquer the world!

The one note that gave me pause for thought was opoponax. Something about that note turns Shalimar into scorched, acrid rubber on my skin, not, alas, in a way I can appreciate. Would Chaldée do the same?

To begin, Chaldée smells unmistakably and distinctly French. In the same way you can recognize a Chanel perfume blindfolded or even a Guerlainade, the overall impression of Chaldée is an emphatic French perfume, dreamed up in Paris. Where Italian perfumes have a definite exuberance about them, much like the Italians themselves, French perfumery has a touch of restraint, of something held back in reserve to unnerve you with later. Right away, there’s what I could describe as a pulse – now you smell it, now you don’t – of that opoponax-laden base, but before you know it, you’re wiped sideways in a swoon of floral fabulosity. The opening has a certain aldehydic, high summer bergamot sharpness, but we’re nowhere near aldehydes. The narcissus and orange blossom are the most prominent to my nose, but the overall impression is abstractly floral, feminine, and drop-dead classy in a way only the French ever achieve perfectly on point. Those abstract flowery ideas bloom and billow thoughout Chaldée’s long 10+ hour development, but the base beats underneath, singing sotto voce of skin and sand, sun and sultry.

The level of sophistication in its execution means I can’t recommend this to perfume ingénues. It demands, like many perfumes, a certain level of maturity to appreciate. I’d say it skews feminine to me, but don’t let that stop you.

In the far drydown, Chaldée takes on a subtly salty-sweet vanilla-marzipan feel, like sun-warmed skin softened by a memory of salt water without once venturing into anything at all marine. I find no clichés, no tired old perfumery tropes, and nothing in the slightest vintage-feeling. This is a modern and most unusual perfume, both elegant and casual in feel at the same time. You could wear this anywhere at all, and never feel out of place or less than your most fabulous, fragrant self.

Your mileage may vary, of course. As a perfume, it is a far cry from my usual favorites, which may be why I love it so much. It’s not at all what I’d usually gravitate towards.

Yet love it, I do. With all the searing heat of that Chaldea of my heart, that heart that claims so many arcane secrets and magic of its own.

As they said in the 1920s, it’s the cat’s (beach) pyjamas.


A ravishing Jean Patou swimsuit, ca. 1928.

Notes (via Fragrantica): Bergamot, orange blossom, narcissus, rose, jasmine, opoponax, vanilla, tonka bean. Perfumer: Thomas Fontaine.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I bought online from a EU-based retailer. No posts in the Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Christmas in July


 – a review of Serge Lutens’ Des Clous Pour Une Pelure

Once upon a time, around the time the pomander above was made, the world was such a foul-smelling place the well-to-do would carry around either these beautiful silver-gilt containers of oranges (an exotic, costly fruit at the time) studded with cloves, or else just the clove-studded fruit, to protect them against pestilential smells and miasmas. It was a commonplace assumption at the time that bad smells led to bad things – the plague or malaria (which literally means ‘bad air’).

It was also a status gesture – cloves were an imported spice from India, oranges were another import, and both together implied a) you had money to burn and b) you knew what smelled good, even as the world reeked to high heaven.

Thanks to sanitation, hygiene and deodorants, we no longer need to carry around our own Smellavision antidotes, and pomanders have been relegated to Christmas/December celebrations in my part of the world.

I haven’t had a Christmas tree for almost nine years, but every year, I stock up on cloves, oranges and ribbon, to make my own pomanders, for no other reason than they scent my entire apartment throughout December with a heavenly perfume.

And then.

Along came Serge Lutens and completely upended my assumptions on clove-studded oranges with Des Clous Pour Une Pelure, which translates as ‘nails for a peel’, or more freely as ‘studs for a peel’. Des Clous Pour Une Pelure – henceforth named Des Clous  – was released in May of 2020, as part of the Les Eaux de Politesse line of Serge Lutens perfumes – dyed a stunning shade of teal. In the video on Serge Lutens’ Facebook page, that bottle glitters like a sentient emerald.

Since receiving my discovery set of Les Eaux, I’ve struggled to find an English-language equivalent of politesse, even with my oversized vocabulary. The Italians came closest with their own approximate equivalent, gentilezza. If you could somehow wrap up the concept of politeness, class as a positive adjective, a more formal style and uncommon courtesy, voilà – politesse.

Which is another way of saying that I suspect the Les Eaux collection is the Serge Lutens version of eaux de cologne, except in eau de parfum and elevated not a few tiers above mere cologne. For most diehard Sergeoholics, that might seem like a step down from his indisputably and justifiably elevated position as the creative director who reinvented Occidental orientalism in perfume with his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake.

When L’Eau launched in 2010, it led to a lot of head-scratching among perfumistas. Seriously, soap? Yes. The proprietary soap of a small and impossibly chic boutique hotel in the Marais, the kind of soap it would be worth one’s while to stash in a suitcase before checking out.  A whole genre of perfumes can be labeled soapy. This is not a derogatory term. It simply means fresh, clean and ready to meet your day with a minimum of fuss or bother because you damn well have better things to do with your time.

And yet. Since 2010, our perceptions of perfume have changed to an incredible degree. Millenials and Gen Y gravitate toward barely there, discreet, unobtrusive scents, if they even wear perfume at all. More and more people are becoming highly sensitized to perfume, and some work environments have banned it completely.

I may have no issues wafting Arabie on a hot summer day, yet many do. For those who don’t want to pack in their perfumista cards on days when even the air conditioner has given up, there’s Les Eaux de Politesse.

Des Clous – for all its pomander associations – fits right in this collection.

What? I hear you ask. But pomanders have that warm, lovely orange+clove ambience! They do – even the Yankee Candle labeled ‘Spiced Orange’ I bought off Amazon in a fit of pique at 3 AM not so long ago.

Des Clous does indeed smell like world-class, fragrant orange peel, and yes, that world-class orange is studded with likewise premium clove. I can’t promise you won’t have any associations of clove oil and dentists, but I certainly don’t.

Instead, it’s cool bordering on chilly. I was instantly reminded of another hot weather favorite, and dug out my mostly empty bottle of L’Eau Froide to compare. There was a note common to both of them, and it drove me mad trying to place it. That note was incense.

A cold, bitter, herbal, ashy frankincense that could only originate in Somalia. So I hauled out my stash of raw Somali frankincense and compared. I could swear – the notes list notwithstanding, and with every Serge Lutens perfume, the notes list is a bit sketchy – I smelled incense. Orange. Clove. Nutmeg. That couldn’t possibly be the whole story.

I wasn’t the only one. In his own review, Persolaise stated that incense was the bridge between the orange and clove, and I suspect he nailed it. That incense is the reason Des Clous vibes so cool, calm and collected, and makes it one of the best liquid air conditioners I have had the privilege to sniff since, well, L’Eau Froide, a summer staple these past nine years, which would explain why my bottle is now down to micro-drops and vapors.

Des Clous can’t be too far behind. This summer, I’ve battled erysipelas of the face (not fun) not once but twice. Massive quantities of MRSA-grade penicillin messed with my nose to such a degree, I couldn’t wear perfume at all, for fear I would associate the perfume with the condition.

Yet I could spray Des Clous into the air with abandon, and I was instantly transported to a much happier place where I could go outside and not scare small children, or look in the mirror without wanting to howl.

At some point, I noticed a facet of Des Clous I have no explanation for at all. Many years ago, a dear friend – and perfumer – sent me a small bag of patchouli leaves from her garden. Somewhere in the far drydown, I detected the merest whisper of minty-green-fresh patchouli leaves. A whisper that adds a touch of intrigue and interest and ties it all together – the orange, the incense, the clove and the nutmeg that serves less as a separate note and more of an olfactory ribbon accentuating the spice of the clove into the perfume that it is.

I guess there really is such a thing as Christmas in July.

Call it – nails for a peel. Or Des Clous Pour Une Pelure.

Notes (via Fragrantica): Orange, clove, nutmeg

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample I paid for. No posts on The Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored, and all opinions expressed on The Alembicated Genie are my own.

Serge Lutens’ Des Clous Pour Une Pelure is available at many online retailers and directly from the Serge Lutens website.