Invisible Armor


– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Chêne’

The problem with being a certified perfumoholic is how it can spill over in unexpected ways into other aspects of life and associations that don’t have too much to do with perfume and more to do with what that particular scent and mood represents.

Once upon a time not too long ago, I wrote a nothing little short story that grew legs in no time and kept on walking, before it hopped, skipped, ran and evolved into a full-blown novel that wasn’t at all what even I expected. These were before the days of perfume blogging, before the days of friends on several sides of three oceans and help for desperate situations. These were the days when I debated with myself for weeks before I finally gathered up the courage to send an email to a perfume house so impossibly refined and indubitably sophisticated, I agonized over a French dictionary and my own oxidized French for three whole nights before I just gave up the ghost and wrote them in English.

Time to email Parfums Serge Lutens and request the famous Petit Livre des Parfums. I was some sort of grownup now, and I was getting awfully peeved at reading so many purple-prosed reviews of Lutens perfumes on perfume blogs and not having a clue. Nothing could be that good. I was too old to be that intimidated.

In no time, I received a nice, fat, fragrant envelope and a nicely signed card that I still own today, and braced myself for this Brave New World ahead. I knew that this was…a moment from which I could never turn back, and my olfactory universe would never be quite the same again.

One in particular caught my attention out of the many that I felt I must some day own, or else die with a severe sense of deprivation. As a perfume, it checked all the right boxes. Green, smoky, both ephemeral and earthy, it was like nothing else I had ever smelled, and evoked an emotion I had never felt before. It made me feel stronger, walk taller, it made me feel…invincible.

Chêne. A liquid ode to the mighty oak tree in all its aspects – the green of the leaves, the smell of sap, the sweet, vanilla-tinged fragrance of its wood. It was…love at first sniff.

It wasn’t long before a large decant found its way into my greedy little hands and Chêne found its way onto my green-craving skin. I never suspected I would enjoy feeling quite so much like Joan of Arc at the moment she walks into the French camp and demands a horse and an audience with the French king. Suddenly, I was Boudicca and Hippolyta and the living embodiment of every female warrior who ever breathed, and there would be no tragic ending here, no chink in this armor. I would never be punished for my transgression in thinking I was equal to anything or anyone, and I would not be intimidated…ever again.

Back to those ever-colder, ever-darker November nights not so long ago, wrestling with the Devil and a few demons of my own making, trawling the murky depths of my subconscious for a story I didn’t even know I needed to tell. Over the next few months, perfume too began weaving its seductive trail through the storyline…as the description of a mood or invocation of an atmosphere, as a bribe, or as a foreshadowing of events to come.

Above them all stood Chêne, my protagonist’s favorite. At her first meeting with a prestigious New York literary agent, she reflects…

I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt, pulled at my suede boots and tried to forget a bra strap was slowly but surely sliding down my left shoulder. I should have worn something else besides Chêne, something safe and innocuous and familiar, but Chêne was my invisible armor.


And at a much later point in the story, after triumph and tragedy, the Devil, no longer what even he once was, decides to pay a visit and remembers:

Skin like silk, a perfumed promise of deliverance, that low, feline growl at the back of her throat, that green and sappy, sweet and smoky trail of Chêne at the back of her neck that drove me mad.


It’s no coincidence at all that the three perfumes my protagonist specifically describes as wearing at different times in the story are all Lutens/Sheldrake creations, nor that when the Devil takes a four-year vacation, he leaves with a bell jar of Chêne, one reminder of that latter-day Joan of Arc who stole the heart he didn’t think he had.

Herbal and green, Chêne starts as a surprise and ends as an aria to all the glories of the wood it celebrates. Cedar and thyme and a deliciously boozy rum dance out into the air off my skin. Instead of slouching, I stand up straighter. When first the birch and next what must be immortelle arrive, I’m talking back, I feel safe and protected and somehow invincible. Life can throw me whatever surprises it likes. Nothing will occur that I can’t handle. My invisible armor sparkles in the sunlight that bounces off the leaves.

Many hours later, the rum, birch, immortelle and sap give way to a furry tonka bean and smoky, burning wood, the scent of a bonfire flaming on a Midsummer’s Eve beneath the boughs, but this is no heretic burning at any stake for her hubris at challenging the status quo, this is a celebration of life and every living creature that breathes and loves. The eerie, earthy, aroma of sap and all that grows, the scent of the oak itself, sacred to Jupiter, and an intimation to be aware that not all that rustles in the undergrowth may be benign. Some creatures may bite, some may sting and all of them are hungry for that taste of green, effervescent life.

If ever a perfume smells…atavistic, this would be it. Proud and pagan, unapologetic and primeval, this is the quintessence of Wood, quintessence of Oak, a sophisticated ode to all that grows just below our ability to articulate it.

Nevertheless, we can grasp it, we can understand it, we can look up in awe at that majestic, sacred tree …and feel its essence in our bones and in that ancient part of our memories that hides just beyond our words.

Wearing Chêne, I can go out into the world and meet…literary agents, editors, Very Important People of any stripe, and present them with the Ten Most Important Reasons I Should Be Heard, and more to the point – knowing that I will be. I’m a latter-day Joan of Arc, although I won’t burn at any stake for my hubris and my own choice of divinity might be unorthodox. Yet I can accomplish whatever I choose with whomever I meet.

Now, Your Majesty, I shall need a horse and a sword. Where did you say those cowardly, lily-livered Anglais were hiding?

Notes according to Basenotes:
Sap, cedar crystals, black thyme, silver birch, rum, beeswax, oak, undergrowth note, tonka.

Chêne is available in the export line of Serge Lutens perfumes, available at Luckyscent, Aedes, and at Barneys NY. It is also available from the Serge Lutens website.

Image of Joan of Arc from Wikimedia Commons

Gender Benders


Or how to be dangerous without really trying!

The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, in his ‘Enquiry Into Plants’, once categorically stated that floral-heady perfumes worked best for men, accentuating their masculinity, whereas heavier scents, such as spikenard, malabathrum and incense, worked best for a woman, an idea that these 2,500 years later seems to run counter to everything we take for granted in the world of perfume. Which only goes to prove just how much things have and haven’t changed since then. I’ve known plenty of men, some hypermasculine exemplars among them, who loved nothing more than, say, a lethal dose of ‘Shalimar’, and likewise, ladies who couldn’t get heady, heavy or potent enough.

Subversion, any former punk and present iconoclast will tell you, can be a wonderful thing. If by subverting certain preconceptions, as mildly or as wildly as you please, you can turn your world ever so slightly on its axis, if you can make your surroundings question their assumptions, then how can that possibly be bad?

Stick around the perfumed world long enough, and somewhere in the course of your passion, you will inevitably eye the other side of the gender divide of the perfume counter and wonder what things happen there.

Once upon a time, it was considered ever-so-slightly daring for a woman to wear a traditionally ‘masculine’ perfume. If it happened, it happened on the sly, admitted sotto voce, like the time I asked my then-teenaged sister what she was wearing, and she whispered ‘Obsession for Men.’ How scandalous! How brave! How…delicious!

Delicious, to immerse yourself in the world of fougères and woods, green and spices, to disconcert your environment that expected something floral and frilly and feminine. Just as white tie and tails – or Yves Saint Laurent’s famous ‘le smoking’ – turned a traditionally masculine concept completely on its head and accentuated sexy femininity, so can ‘masculine’ scents present a double threat – an aura that should be a butch testimony to testosterone, and instead is a testimony to female.

These days, of course, it doesn’t matter any more. In all fairness, as one famous perfumer said, the only difference between men’s and women’s perfumes is – and has always been – the ‘Pour Homme’ printed on the label. Several lines make no distinction at all, and I don’t see why you should, either.

So, ladies – spray away. Go ahead. Live a little dangerously.You know you want to!

In my own perfumed life history, I’ve loved not a few masculines – loved them enough to wear them, to gift them to boyfriends, to have fun by experiencing everything they had to offer, and in so doing to come a little closer to what I love. Below follows a few of my favorites. Some are classics, some are divisive – all of them are devastating – on either gender!

The Classics
These are the Big Ones, the ones you can’t get around, the classics that have been filched from bathroom cabinets everywhere nearly since the launch date – they’re that good.

Eau Sauvage (Dior)
It may remind you of your father, it may remind you of Classic Cologne with capital Cs, but Edmond Routnitska’s Eau Sauvage was a groundbreaking scent for a reason. On women, this is Class with Sass.

Vetiver (Guerlain)
If you love Green Fiends, the kind of viridian perfumed statements that brook no arguments and take no prisoners, then Guerlain’s ‘Vetiver’ is for you. It was, in fact, my own gateway into masculines, and much later, Guerlain took note and created ‘Vetiver Pour Elle’. Surely, that was unnecessary. The original is perfect just as it is.

Mouchoir de Monsieur (Guerlain)
One of my two very first proper perfume purchases was ‘Jicky’, a ground-breaking revolution in a bottle. A fougére but not, a floral but not, a slightly leathery, elusive animal, it lives somewhere in between the spaces of its contradictions, just like its sibling, ‘Mouchoir de Monsieur’. Whereas Jicky is somewhat naughty and impetuous, ‘Mouchoir’ is rather more well-behaved. Which doesn’t mean it’s not just as naughty, in a good way.

The Subversives

L’Anarchiste (Caron)
You expect something unusual from a perfume called The Anarchist. Something Piotr Kropotkin would have worn. This is orange and spice and all things nice, and the most anarchistic thing about it is its name, for turning your expectations on their heads. Another way to circumvent convention, maybe?

M7 (Yves Saint Laurent)
I have a problem with oudh. Shoot me for my lack of perfumista sophistication if you must, but something about oudh gives me a headache. Unless, like here, it’s wrapped in the kind of woody rosemary-vetiver that sands down most of the medicinal edges to a smooth, glossy finish. On a man, this is devastating. On a woman, this is a definite threat. Wear wisely, or bear the consequences! 😉

The Modern Yet Timeless
Dior Homme (Dior)
Iris – in fact, orris root – can go in one of two directions to my nose. Either it nosedives into a hairspray vibe that turns my stomach no matter what I do (Prada’s ‘Infusion d’Iris), or it is stupendously, staggeringly beautiful in a way few other floral notes can capture. I love a few iris-laden perfumes, and of them all, Dior Homme is at the very top tier of that list. Why they call it ‘Homme’, I don’t know. Chilly – as iris often is – elegant, and timeless. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better…Dior gave us-

Dior Homme Intense (Dior)
Dior Homme Intense is the dressed up for living dangerously sibling of Homme. I once managed to shock my (virtually shockproof) sister by drenching myself in this. This is heavier, an evening scent, if you will, with a definitely sweeter, smokier vanilla-cocoa vibe. I can only be grateful I have yet to meet it on an attractive man, because I’d eat him if he wore this. As it is, I can only just refrain from gnawing my own arm. Just.

Chêne (Serge Lutens)
Serge Lutens dispenses with gender labels altogether, and rightly so. Who cares? Wear what you love, but certain perfumes of his line tend to skew in either a feminine or a masculine direction, and certain others can read either way. I would never have guessed in a zillion years that I would fall so hard for a perfume, I’d write it into my novel, yet I did. A perfume named for a wood – oak – in all its sappy, smoky, slightly boozy manifestations, it is sexy on either gender. Perfect for days you feel the need for invisible armor. Wearing ‘Chêne’, I can handle anything. Anything at all.

Encens et Lavande (Serge Lutens)
Perfume names can be slightly misleading, to say the least. Yet ‘Encens et Lavande’ is perfectly named – incense and lavender. No more, no less, no need to gild this lily any further. It seems so simple and is incredibly complex, it is contemplative and it is comforting. Great on a guy, great on a gal, just plain…genius, any way you try it.

Traditional ‘masculine’ perfumes are often just as good – and in some cases better – on women, just as ladies in tuxes can be devastastingly feminine and more than slightly subversive. Marlene Dietrich in her white tie and tails could never be mistaken for anyone but Marlene Dietrich – beautiful, strong, slightly disconcerting yet still a Woman with a capital W, putting the ‘fatale’ in ‘femme’!

That’s at least part of the idea, right? 😉

Photo: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’ (Paramount, 1930).