The Phoenix and the Dragon

 – a time-travel tale – and a review – of Serge Lutens Mandarine Mandarin

Chang’An, 682 CE

It was the day before Zhang Hou New Year, which meant that Aristaios should be packing up his belongings at the inn to join the caravans bound for the long journey to Samarkand and beyond. With a little luck, he could be in Kashgar by spring, more luck, and he would be home in his native Constantinople by next winter, to sell his wares, to finally marry, to carry on his storied line of Byzantine traders, and to remain until the next time he came to fabled Chang’An, if he ever did. 

But Aristaios found himself reluctant to return. Why go back to Constantinople, when everything and anything he could possibly desire could be found here at the edge of the world, in a city of splendor and plenty not even the pearl of the Bosporus could ever hope to equal?

The rod-straight boulevards that stretched to the horizon, the palaces of the emperor Gaozong, the pagodas of worship, the parks with their canals, their lakes and fountains, their pavilions and tea houses, the Persian bazaars that sold anything and everything his own world had to offer, and many things not even his own emperor Constantine had ever seen. Silks worthy of any pagan God or Christian emperor, silks in glorious, embroidered colors seen only in fever dreams, medicines to cure all and any aches and pains, perfumes to set both man and beast alight, infinitely finer by far than anything upstart Damascus could hope to make. 

Not even in Byzantium could a man travel in safety from brigands and thieves, or sleep in spotless, comfortable inns, knowing his camels were fed, and his wallet and his wares secure. 

In Chang’An, all these things were possible, and endless more beside. Why should he ever leave? 
He knew the answer. His father would haunt his dreams all his life if he remained. Bad enough, but far worse was to know the beautiful Helena, whose image in his mind had haunted him all along the long, long road to Chang’An. Through the desiccated roads of Persia, the scorching sun of Samarkand, and all through the endless, deadly, shimmering sands of the Taklimakan that stretched from Kashgar to Duahuang, he had been haunted by Helena’s laughing face. Indeed, she was the reason he was present in Zhang Hou, here in the beating heart of Chang’An.

“Go to Chang’An, my son, since you are by far the best Persian speaker among us, and when you return, you shall marry Helena.” 

Marry Helena! All doors would be open when he married Helena, the trading company could grow, the family fortune swell. He cared for none of it, cared for nothing but to see that laughing face under the olive trees in the garden by the Bosporus. If not for Helena, he would stay here in Chang’An, the center of a world far more refined than Constantinople. But Helena.

The drums heralding the opening of the Persian bazaar at noon startled him out of his reverie. He would be late for his meeting with the customs official in a teahouse in the bazaar if he did not hurry, his goods might even be fined!

Well enough, he could add the fine to the premium and the taxes when he sold them back home. 

In the crush of humanity in the Western bazaar, he was late all the same. Persians and natives, Samarkand Sogdians and Indians, Greeks and Arabs all came to Chang’An, and since it was New Year’s tomorrow, most of them were here, it seemed, eager to stock up before the holiday, eager to share news of the roads, the taxes, the gossip of the court. 

“Aristaios? Son of the trader Chrysippos of Constantinople?” Flawless Persian, with no trace of accent. A tall figure dressed in the distinctive headdress and orange silks of the court officials rose and bowed before him. Orange. An official of the fourth rank, well-used to dealing with foreigners and traders.

The courtesy surprised him when he finally arrived at the teahouse out of breath. He bowed low in return. Protocol was everything in Zhang Hou. “I am.”

“I am Wu Liu, of the Office of Trade, to see that your export papers are in order and your fees have been paid in full.” Wu Liu was young, close to his own age. This meant that he had only recently passed his exams. 

Aristaios dug in his tunic for his papers. “I do believe they are in order, lord.”

Wu Liu twitched a corner of his mouth. “Chrysippos is known in Chang’An as an honest man.” He quickly perused the sheaf of papers bearing Imperial stamps and signatures.

“Thank you. The Emperor Gaozong is known to be fair to merchants.”

“Or his officials are. If you’re lucky! You might be.” Wu Liu laughed. “Tea?” 

Yes, the addictive drink that was everywhere along the Great Roads. Tea.

“So, do you have everything you need for your return?” asked Wu Liu, once the tea steamed in the cups.

“Most of it,” he replied. The bales of silk and spices in the warehouse by the Western Gate, the ceramics wrapped in wool and straw in their crates, a necklace, a jeweled comb for Helena stashed away in his saddle bag. “But do you know where I might find a perfume for my betrothed? Not the ones sold here in the bazaar. I can buy those cheaper in Merv or Rhagae. Something finer, something unique to Chang’An.”

The silks rustled as Wu Liu shifted in his seat. He smiled wider. “Something only a customs official would know to find, perhaps?”

Aristaios sipped his tea. “If it’s not an impertinent question.”

At that, Wu Liu laughed. “It is always an impertinent question. For your betrothed, you say? Ah. I know the one. You are searching for a perfume of marriage, something unique. Have you ever heard of the Fenghuang? Or the dragons of Zhang Hou?”

“The dragons of Zhang Hou?” he bleated. “The monsters of myth?”

“Just so, in Byzantium. But in Zhang Hou, dragons are portents only of good. They bring good fortune and prosperity to those who honor them. And the Fenghuang…” Wu Liu paused and considered. “A phoenix, I believe you call it. A symbol of virtue and grace. The dragon and the phoenix together are symbols of a happy union, man and woman, light and dark. There is a Frank with a perfume shop close by the Serpentine River park. Are you familiar with the park?”

“A Frank? In Chang’An?” This surprised Aristaios. The Franks were, for all he knew and practical purposes at the opposite end of the world. 

“The world comes to Chang’An, Aristaios. Even a Frank.” Wu Liu rose to his feet. “I must return to the office. Go to the Frank, and ask for The Phoenix and the Dragon. Tell him I sent you. He speaks Greek. He will know.” Another bow, and Wu Liu was instantly swallowed by the crowds in a glimmer of orange.

The winter sun slanted westward by the time Aristaios found the shop near the Serpentine River park, exactly where Wu Liu had said it would be. The shop was plain and unassuming, nothing more exciting than apothecary jars in their cases, mortars and pestles, a long counter for the customers and two orange trees by the door. Yet the Frank himself, a spare, unassuming old man with a guarded manner, was the biggest surprise of all. For the first time in over a year, Aristaios spoke his native Greek. In Chang’An! At the end of the world!

“Wu Liu, you say? Ah – a good man. They say he has great things in store in his future. But you are busy, I can tell …” and he shuffled off to the back of the store. “It is very expensive, you know, the Dragon and the Phoenix. But very auspicious! Best for marriages! Yes, now where did I …”

Another moment, and Aristaios stared at a black, lacquered tiny box of wax, embossed with what he supposed was a phoenix and a dragon in red lacquer.

“Here,” the Frank found him a stool. “Sit. My perfumes are better experienced so.” He opened the box, touched the wax, and transferred it to Aristaios’ wrist. “Breathe it in.”

So he did. The next instant, he was glad to be sitting down, for this! 

This! This was the scent of happiness and sunshine, of wintery joys and cosy nights by a fire, of the orange so loved in Chang’An at New Year’s. Spice and the lacquered box it came in, celestial flowers perfumed with blinding divine light, of tea in a teahouse and glimmers of silk, of all the wonders of Chang’An and all the happiness he hoped would come, this was not a perfume, this was an epiphany! 

Take that, you piddling, mediocre perfumers of Damascus! 

“You like it?” asked the Frank. 

Aristaios moved his mouth, but no words would come out. “Um, I …” he faltered. “Can I steal it? All of it you have?”

“No. The Phoenix and the Dragon can be bought. Or given. That is all.”

He fumbled for his pouch of gold coins and dumped them all on the counter. “Will this be enough?”

The Frank didn’t blink. “No.” He removed one coin. “Keep the rest.” He wrapped the tiny box in a square of embroidered orange silk and tied it with an elaborate gold cord..

As Aristaios rose and turned to leave, the Frank called after him. “I hope she’s worth it. Or you are!”

Many months later in Antioch, Aristaios dug in his saddlebags for a clean tunic at the inn. Home was mere days away, home, and Father and Helena of the laughing face. Near the bottom, he found a large, square package wrapped in orange silk he certainly didn’t recall stashing away. He untied the silk. A large, lacquered box he also didn’t remember, embossed with a red, lacquered phoenix and dragon and on top of it, a scrap of Zhang Hou paper. 

In careful letters, it said in Greek:

The phoenix and the dragon can only be bought, or given. Choose wisely.

Notes: Chinese orange, nutmeg, orange peel, mandarin orange, tea, amber, labdanum, tonka bean, rose hip. 

Mandarine Mandarin is a Palais Royal bell jar exclusive, available directly from the Serge Lutens website. 

With thanks to Molly, who reminded me. 

Photo: Embroidered silk from the Mawangdui tomb of the Lady of Dai, Hunan Province, Western Han dynasty, ca. 182 BCE. Digital restoration and enhancement, yours truly. 

Confessions of a Sergeoholic

– an armchair guide to Parfums Serge Lutens

It should come as no surprise to most readers of this blog that I am a Major Sergeoholic. Of all the perfume houses I know and adore, I own more Serge Lutens than any other perfume house by a mile – twenty-two at last count, and I can easily rattle off a long wish list on the ones I don’t have – yet.

There’s a reason for this. 

Bottled emotions

Eighteen years ago, I lived in a sad state of affairs for a perfume lover. I owned precisely none at all.  How or even why I came to land on Makeupalley during that sad state of affairs, I can’t tell you, so imagine my surprise when I discovered actual perfume reviews. Perfume reviews! Makeup I could understand – but perfume? Reviews? Whattheeverloving?

You have to remember – this was a time before blogs, before Basenotes and Fragrantica, Facebook, Instagram … before everything. 

And then – a moment that really made me wonder. It was a review of a brand I had never, ever heard of, and claimed that the creative director bottled emotion. Moments in time, sure. Seduction, definitely. All-round fragrant badassery, I could understand that, too. But how in the name of damask rose did you bottle emotion? To say I was intrigued is to understate the issue. 

I was positively floored.

Some time later, I came across NYC retailer Aedes de Venustas, who sold the Serge Lutens export line at the time, and their 2003 Christmas catalog was pored over for years until it fell apart as I dreamt of bottled emotions. I couldn’t afford so much as a fragrant tree ornament, but I could at least dream of the day when I did. 

Epiphany En Masse

By 2009, my curiosity was killing me not at all softly. Perfume blogs had arrived, and I read them religiously. I can still recall sweating anxious bullets in front of my laptop in those days, trying to resurrect my oxidized schoolgirl French from the dead to request a booklet of wax samples by email from this hyper-chic perfume house, until I finally caved and requested one in English. 

Lo and behold, it arrived two days later. With a note, even. As I opened those little booklets with shaking hands, eyed askance by the rest of the household who thought I was nuts, the world tilted on its axis, the stars shifted above, and everything changed. The first one I tried was Chêne. ‘Oak’ is the mundane translation, but oak was the least of it. This was an oak experience, a magic carpet ride into the very soul of a tree, and such a one. 

All these many years later, it seems strange that I began with Chêne. Why not the Grand Revolution – Feminité du Bois? I can’t tell you, any more than I can tell you why I have yet to review another forever love, except to say that all the decants I’ve ever received of FdB have been drained to the very last droplets prontissimo before I could plant myself at the keyboard. 

Since then, I have, as I’ve said, more bottles and decants of Serge Lutens than any other perfume house on Earth. I certainly don’t like or even love them all, but there’s something for everyone. 

Liquid literature

These perfumes have since permeated my consciousness to such an extent, that when the time came to prepare my first novel for publication, I contacted the Palais Royal again. My protagonist was a definite perfumista, and without the writer even noticing, slyly inserted Lutens perfumes into the storyline. Since it had gone from a story with three readers – bless them all – on an unknown blog to the verge of publication as a novel, I needed to get the legalities straight. I asked for permission to “quote” – which is to say, describe perfumes – from M. Lutens’ olfactory output. “What a strange request!”, they wrote me back. Not an hour later, my request was granted. 

I had a complete out of body experience. Of all the moments that have defined my perfume life, I think that was one of two I’m proudest of, second only to the perfume project the book itself inspired. 

As of late 2021, I’m in the early stages of another novel, and this protagonist, too, loves Serge Lutens perfumes with a flaming heart. Which leads me to … 

Free advertising

Since childhood, I’ve believed in sharing my enthusiasms/shouting my loves to the world. One winter day in 2011, I spent an afternoon with a woman who went on to become both a mentor, a massive inspiration and a very dear friend. I explained my burgeoning perfume writing, and had brought samples of many different things, Serge Lutens perfumes included. She lamented that perfume for her had become boring, sameish, insipid. So I introduced her to Boxeuses. It received the all-important husband seal of approval. She bought it posthaste. 

From that day forward, she has worn only Serge Lutens. When – being a restless Gemini – she moves on to other Lutens/Sheldrake creations, she passes them on to the impecunious perfume writer who introduced her, bless her forever. These days, she’s a wildly successful painter of wildly exuberant paintings, and somewhere in those explosions of color, motive, life and wit, there’s a distinct, subversive whiff of perfume. 

I’m never paid to write reviews. If I dig deep for superlatives in my reviews, you can bet your Nombre Noir (should you be lucky enough to own it, because that, too, is a Lutens creation) it’s because I’m sharing my enthusiasm with all the verve of an over-excited five-year-old. Love is love. Your mileage may vary, but I love what I love. Read all about it. 

Hazards before coffee

One bleary-eyed morning not so long ago, an email ticked in. It was an invitation to a virtual masterclass in all things Serge Lutens – the man himself and his astonishing career, the inspirations, and a short introduction to some groundbreaking perfumes from what is now known as Collection Noir – what used to be known as ‘the export line’. I hadn’t even had my coffee yet, but I signed up, posthaste. 

The making of a master

The masterclass itself was held this past Thursday, and it was an illumination. One hundred diehard Sergeoholics from all over the world were treated to an absolutely edifying journey; his humble, heartstopping beginnings in Lille, how he began his career, the origins of his unique – and uniquely personal – aesthetic, and on and on. His makeup collection landed in the Guggenheim museum. Diana Vreeland was a fan. 

But also how, in 1967, at the ripe old age of twenty-five and in need of a vacation, he came by divine accident to Morocco and became suddenly and acutely aware of the olfactory dimension to life. Having been to Morocco, I can relate – Morocco is an all-out assault to the senses in all the best – and a few of the worst! – ways. 

The perfumes in the master class were, in order, Feminité du bois, originally created for Shiseido, Fleurs d’Oranger, Nuit de Cellophane, La Fille de Berlin, Ambre Sultan and Chergui, all part of the Collection Noir. 

A few inspirations

Did you know, for instance, that all of his perfumes were conceptualized as unisex from the beginning? In 1992, this was audacious in the extreme. That Feminité du bois set the trend for woody perfumes for women – for decades to come? It was conceived as “the masculine side of femininity and vice versa, inspired by the many wood shops in Marrakesh” (and that breathtaking Atlas cedar.)  Or that the Palais Royal boutique, surely THE most drop-dead chic/intimidating/breathtaking of all drop-dead perfume stores, was originally created expressly to sell Feminité du bois? (I’ve never been there, but I do have a personal invitation.) 

Fleurs d’Oranger, my first ever Lutens obsession, was inspired by passing a courtyard in the medina of Marrakesh as women were beating an orange tree with sticks to collect the blossoms. All the women were overjoyed to be doing precisely that, and that was the emotion he sought to capture – and did. I bought my last bottle of Fleurs d’Oranger just so I could spray it on my pillows whenever I feel low. Now, it’s the bottle that’s low. 

La Fille de Berlin is every rose – and every woman. 

Ambre Sultan, his tribute to all things Arabic and Marrakesh, and not incidentally my personal gateway amber, a perfume category I used to loathe, is, in his own words, “not an Oriental, but an Arab – and a Lutens. Don’t expect to fit in.” This explains in a nutshell why I love it so much – it’s not at all a “usual” amber. Inspired by an amber wax stored for years in a thuja wood box, I call this one La Grande Khadine. If you really want to see Salome drop all seven veils, wear La Grande Khadine on a hot summer’s day. If you really want to experience what an amber perfume can do, wear La Grande Khadine. Full stop.

Nuit de Cellophane, which I have yet to try, was inspired by his beginnings in Paris in the early 1960s, by haute couture dresses delivered wrapped in cellophane and is the scent of anticipation. Chergui, named for an easterly desert wind that is less wind and more vacuum, he described as “a desert in flames”, but such flames!

The masterclass was the first of its kind, but it may not be the last. It was a thoroughly bewitching Zoom session, and many of us had all sorts of questions and comments on all things Lutens. What I can tell you is this – no Lutens perfumes will ever be discontinued. Should it come to pass that you are a Lutens neophyte, any – or all! – of these five perfumes would be an excellent introduction.

Perfume, after all, is the most uniquely personal of all art forms. Why wear it? For that matter, why wear perfumes by Serge Lutens? As the man himself asked the question:

“What facet of ourselves will make us shine?”

This facet of myself, this writing which comes from the <3. And last but never least, these perfumes. 

With thanks to Emily Veness Budin. 

Photo: Yours truly. All bottles from my personal collection.



 – Scent Semantics nr. 1

Brave, adj. – to display courage. 

Courage in the face of adversity, courage to claim agency, courage to do YOU. Even if you feel as small as a dormouse, even when the world conspires against you, courage to claim your turf and be – BRAVE. 

Courage to claim agency and be BRAVE – and wear Serge Lutens Chêne. Wrap up warm in your most non-conformist, unconventional self, go! 

Go! Go and dare to do it anyway, dare to say “get out of my way”, go to defy the naysayers, the trolls, the party poopers, the rain on your parade and be BRAVE in your … 

Cloud of ancient woody-green oak and an oaken barrel of rum stashed in the shadows, liquid courage – but not too much, lest you lose your impetus and your way in that dark, dense old forest of naysayers. They are not your tree, not this tree in a fairy-tale forest, not your tribe who make your primordial sap rise a tide of brave that says YES, you can do this, YES, you got this, YES – this is YOURS and you will NOT apologize, not conform to a standard, not listen to that tinny, razor saw-edge voice in your head that seethes and whispers “Don’t!” and “Can’t!” You can – you are an oak that has stood your test of time and withstood centuries of gales, you are strong and mighty, you carry the spirit of Balanos with you where you live and where you breathe. The wind will pass through your branches, the rain will soak your roots, you will creak and groan in the howling winds of life, but you are alive, but you will, you must, you have no other choice but

To be BRAVE.

Courage to defy those who would oppose you with your own brand of resistance and be BRAVE – and wear Eris Perfumes’ Green Spell. Give ‘em all a living, breathing, green jungle hell on a platter with your sillage, glow like a poison green beacon in the dark, and go ahead – dare them to defy YOU. You are BRAVE, covered in otherworldly forest flowers, wafting danger, wanting that knife-edge bloom of desire that pulses underneath the trees, take that green rush of daring, the Halloween glow that declares danger to the world if it denies you your place, your spirit, your right to exist. The naysayers shall not pass this bridge of BRAVE, you will break them, you will invoke your ancient powers and call upon the mojo you call all your own, you will cast this Green Spell and throw caution to the wind, let them talk, let them wonder, let them snigger behind your back, you have all your power and your spell on your skin, writ large in all the thousand shades of rumble jungle green. Let the parrots in their vivid plumes chatter on the cliffs, let the condors soar above it, let the monkeys down below shriek on their branches to the skies for all the world to know and to hear

that you are BRAVE. 

Courage to claim your turf, courage to always be who you are, courage to kick all convention to the curb and be BRAVE enough to wear vintage Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum. Paloma may well claim it but she is a Picasso, and who would deny her or her talents? You claim your own and cement them in this audacious rosy chypre, you wear it when you need to act, you need to do, you need to knock down the fences and be as BRAVE as only you would dare. And should they deny you, should they defy you, your leather castoreum oakmoss-soaked whip will smack them across the noses of all those bland, unscented conformist faces. You stake your claims to the multiverse every day you live, every time you breathe, every time you manifest your presence, your ideas, your right to do YOU, every time you wear ton parfum, and by Golly is it YOURS, y-o-u-r perfume that states everywhere you go, on all the world’s biggest neon-lit billboards, with blood-red Bulgarian roses and oakmoss, with leather and castoreum, with the capital C in Chypre, that you of all people, you of all creatures, you, yes, YOU on your tiny, blue-green world, you in your rosy, smoky-smexy-leathery candlelit corner … 

You will be, now, tomorrow, in all your futurities

You will be BRAVE. 

Follow Scent Semantics once a month and don’t forget to read the other contributions to our project below. 



Daisy and


Old Herbaceous


With thanks to Portia, Suzanne (for Chêne) and Barbara Hermann.