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.


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