Calorification or…All buttered up and no pain to go!


– a review of Serge Lutens’ Jeux de Peau

In an ideal world, there would be no such emotion as…guilt. And no such thing as calories, either. Just run with that thought for a moment…Fancy all the chocolate you could possibly eat, and you would never see it on your thighs. Fancy every sinful thing to stuff in your mouth…every dessert, every bit of patisserie item, every napoleon, every Sacher torte and cheesecake and whipped-cream indulgence you can find room for – and it would never, ever show! No frantic calculations on the treadmill, no panting, gasping, red-faced run up That Hill And That Vertical Stairway– the one that nearly kills you, it’s so steep – as you pay your penance for indulging all your lowest sugar-laden cravings the day before.

What a concept! What a world! As we all know and only too well, that’s just not how it happens, alas.

Or is it? Because now the Great Punster himself, Serge Lutens, has unleashed ‘Jeux de Peau” upon a suspicious-minded perfumed planet, and because I strongly suspect an imp hiding in that elegant French gentleman, I rather suspect the joke is on…us!

We Who Would Dare To Indulge…If Only.

‘Jeux de Peau’ is itself a pun…a ‘play on skin’ that is a play on the French expression ‘jeux de mots’ – a play on words. In other words…a pun. When my sample arrived, it also arrived with an elegant beige and black card, and the enigmatic quote:

“A first response to solitude: hot bread.”

I’ve done my penitence in a bakery – literally – and during one of the hottest summers on record, so I know a thing or two about “hot bread”. I know about things like the acrid scent of fresh-milled flour and the smell of sugar burned borderline black, and pastries pulled out of ovens not two minutes before, oozing their buttery, flaky secrets, singing in their cinnamon-perfumed soprano voices:

“Eat us. You know you want to!”

So…is this pastry in a bottle? All the indulgence and none of the calories, less of the guilt? Toast or pain perdu on a solitary bed on a Sunday morning when you finally kicked him out and you’re left alone in splendid bliss to crunch toast all over the bed as you read the Sunday papers and drip jam and butter on the duvet?

No.

Remember, Monsieur Lutens loves his puns. This was very much not what I expected, but quite a bit more.

Right out of the bottle, that burnt note leaps forward, the genie in the bottle, and it is dark and it is gorgeous and when was the last time I ate toast, even? Burnt, buttery…and smoky sandalwood, and I can’t believe it, but is that coffee?
Yes. With loads of sugar, or is that caramel? It is! Burnt, sandalwood, caramel, coffee and I’m thinking this is a very sexy breakfast (he wasn’t kicked out!), and then comes the moment I have to laugh. Laugh at my overheated imagination, and laugh at this perfume, and that doesn’t happen often!

On stealthy feet, a luscious, sweet, cinnamon-tinged osmanthus exudes its honeyed apricot and begins to bloom. It grows lusher and sweeter, the epitome of Apricot, before it cedes center stage after a long while to the sandalwood – hello, lover, where have you been? – and cinnamon drydown, a touch of musk and maybe myrrh that lasts and lasts. And lasts. This is a Lutens, after all.

Whee! What a rush! And that’s just breakfast, baby!

Not very overpowering or even particularly sweet, ‘Jeux de Peau’ has dessert in its soul, but not in its heart. It’s the whole breakfast tray and that devastating sandalwood too, and therein lies yet another pun on the name itself. ‘A Play On Skin’.

It will take days to wipe this lascivious grin off my face. Days, I tell you!

This is a gourmand, an Oriental gourmand, but it is not your usual gourmand. It is unexpected, unisex, elegant, and like so many Serge Lutens creations, a journey, a story, a vignette or tableau in a bottle.

I was expecting the boulangerie. Instead, I got the morning after. With a laughing osmanthus thrown in.

Uncle Serge did not let me down. And although I know the joke is all on me (and the duvet, and the breakfast tray, and…), I forgive him everything!

Think about it – how many puns have you met contained in bottles? 😉

Wicked Pussycat


Once upon a time, I was the sort of woman who had…adventures, shall we say. They did not involve anything so daring as climbing Mount Everest, white-water rafting in Brazil or rappelling off sheer cliff faces straight into the Atlantic, but they were sometimes very nearly as dangerous! There are many ways to have adventures, as I’m sure you know! Since I had a background in the netherworld, it would follow that my adventures were of a more cerebral and, well…netherwordly kind.

In the course of those adventures, a friend gifted me with a bottle of perfume suitable for that kind of adventure. It was nothing available in Copenhagen, nothing I had come across before, and it was – perfect. Perfect for the headspace that came with it, perfect for the part I had to dress for this kind of adventure, cerebral, complex, complicated – just plain…perfect.

That was Robert Piguet’s “Bandit”, and there was, in those heady, single days of living dangerously in the early Nineties, no perfume more perfect for dotting the is and crossing the ts of donning the whole domme mindset, the final accessory to the leather, the six-inch spikes and fishnets, the occasional latex outfit that involved things like extra help and a serious dose of unscented baby powder. It was leathery but not entirely, it was ashy yet not completely, it was strange and rubbery and compelling in a way not many perfumes had the ovaries to be in those days, and not many women had the ovaries to wear it.

Wearing “Bandit”, I became a completely different woman. Not my Pollyanna usual self, not my other absent-minded self, but this other…woman, who liked the dark and the darkly erotic, who liked to push buttons, take control and walk on the wild side and see where it would take her – often into territory a good deal more dangerous and thrilling than any sheer cliff face by the Atlantic.

Oh, yes.

Somewhere along the line, I gave “Bandit” away to a girlfriend who would appreciate its take-no-prisoners qualities, who could carry it off with aplomb and èlan, and life got in the way, as it sometimes does.

Lo and behold, these many years later, “Bandit” arrived in a sample set from First in Fragrance, and lo and behold, it is not ruined by reformulation.

There is something about certain green, galbanum-laden chypres that appeal in a good many ways to my inner fearless female – the one who never takes no for an answer, the one who is in perfect control of every situation, the one who always knows what to say, what to wear, and what to do once the door closes and there’s no turning back, he’s toast and he knows it and he wouldn’t want it any other way. Tomorrow, he’ll be breakfast, and he knows that, too!

My inner bitch, my inner domme, l-o-v-e-s chypres. Dee of Beauty on the Outside talks about another chypre that brings out her inner Maleficent, and I’m sure it’s glorious on her. Me – I’ll happily take Bandit. For the memories, for the sheer, compelling, complex strangeness of it, and for being created by Germaine Cellier – who surely put the B in Butch, Bitch and Bandit and not by accident.

Right out of the bottle, it has that smoky, dirty-ashtray vibe that should be utterly repellant, and yet is not. Bandit is not just smokin’, she smokes, too. So? You have a problem with that? Then you might have a problem with the rubbery, green facets of Bandit as well, and with the leather, because of course, Bandit is into leather…big time. Not exactly an overdose so much as just enough to unhinge you and unnerve you, the violet notes just soft enough to whisper in that low, sexy smoker’s voice. Bandit never raises her voice. She doesn’t have to. She walks into the room and you will automatically sit up straighter, pay very close attention and only just refrain from mentally pulling up your socks. Shut up. Did she give you permission to have an opinion, too?

I get the floral aspects, but Bandit is so dry teetering on bitter that it’s hard to tease out the flowers from the floorshow. They soften the leathery, ashy edges all the way through the drydown, still all about glove-soft black leather, warm above some very dangerous curves suggested by a touch of vetiver, myrrh and what smells like oakmoss. Can it be? Oakmoss? In this day and age? I don’t know how it can possibly be much else.

The reformulated eau de parfum, which is what I tested, is softer and not quite so butch as the original I remember. I seem to recall something nearly feral, but since my memories of Bandit are tied up, literally, with other memories, I could be wrong!

What I do know is this – holy (dead) COW, this is sexy. It plays in a slightly lower key than it used to, and that’s not a bad thing. I wore this to the office today (OMG, yes I did!), just to gauge the reactions I got, and Bandit is my new favorite chypre. The response was very gratifying. Those poor guys will have their heads spinning the rest of this week! It’s not quite so obvious as it used to be, and I don’t mind. I’m at the age where I don’t like to give too much away at the outset…;) First you have to lure them in…

So, as Bandit ‘walks her catgirls on leashes in leather’, to paraphrase one slightly cheesy video that captures its vibe perfectly, I do hereby solemnly declare…Bandit will very likely be one of my next two full-bottle purchases. It’s that good!

Because sometimes, I want to be that kind of woman, just for the thrill. Because I like those boots. And because…a little danger never hurt…too much! 😉

Robert Piguet “Bandit” is available at many online retailers and sometimes at perfume discounters, too.

The Courtesan, the Conjuror and the Cynic


– a review (and a tale) of Amouage “Ubar”

She would always come to his shop on the perfumer’s row in the late afternoon, when the worst heat of the day had dissipated to a shimmering golden haze above the streets and the ships in the harbor, when every sensation, every sound and every scent seemed to linger just a little longer than usual, when fine black lines delineated the shapes around the tools of his trade – the mortars, the oils and flasks and jars, the smaller boxes that held his secret treasures; resins and woods, precious myrrh and the white-gold tears of frankincense he hoarded and kept only for those trusted customers who paid promptly and in cash.

Like most everyone here in Alexandria, she obviously came from somewhere else. Her name he never learned, although he knew enough to see her for what she was, with her expensive shawls, the gleaming silks and linens dyed deep and vibrant colors, all the better to set off her remarkable amber-gold hair and that pale, milky skin that told tales of another, colder climate on the far northern edge of the sunlit world he knew.

She came accompanied only by a girl, so like her she could only be her daughter, and in all the many months he spent with her, the daughter would simply sit with a bit of embroidery in her lap listening, or else observing every item close by, the tiny cauldrons bubbling over the fire, his chopping boards and knives, the flower essences and bunches of herbs hanging in profusion on the walls, so heady in the summer heat customers had been known to grow dizzy and faint.

“I have an assignment for you,” the woman said that first afternoon. “I want you to make me a perfume. I will pay you well.” A fat and heavy purse of coins clanked on his counter top. “Consider this an advance.” She stood back and assessed him, as if to judge whether this were a task he were worthy of.

“Lady, I have many perfumes in my shop…the Susinon of one thousand lilies that Cleopatra herself perfumed her sails with these two hundred years ago, the Megaleion, I have the finest items from Callimarchos’ shop in Athens, I have Panathenaean, I have Royal Parthian perfumes, even, straight from the courts of the Parthian king…”

She did not let him finish. “No.” Such finality, such determination in that small and simple word. “I said,” she lifted an elegant hand and the gold of her bangles gleamed and flashed in an errant sunbeam from the door. “I want you to make me a perfume. For me. Not to sell to your customers or to smell on the whores in the harbor brothels…” her nose wrinkled in fastidious distaste. “A perfume just for me.”

“Then, dear lady, I shall need to know something of you first. What scents you like and dislike, where you might be challenged,, and what…”

Again, she did not let him finish. “I will come to your shop in the afternoons and tell you…stories. And when I am done, you will make a perfume just for me.” She inclined her head, and the pale and silent girl preceded her out into the street, already bustling after the afternoon’s siesta.
For years after, he would remember how he had stood that moment, transfixed in the sunbeams off the floor, wondering where to start. A perfume, just for her.

True to her word, she would come in the afternoons and tell of her adventures, of dancing for the Emperor at his palace in Rome so far away, of sunlit mornings on a rose-covered terrace in Rhodes, of the dust and heat of a faraway fabled city that grew rich off the trade in frankincense and the long and perilous journey she had undertaken once to India with a merchant who could not bear to be without her company. She told of the unexpected pleasure of finding patches of those tiny, bell-shaped flowers that she loved on cool, misty mornings in a shady forest. She told him of heartbreak and unexpected joy, tragedy and laughter, all the pains and pleasures of a life lived to the fullest extent of all her many passions.

For almost a year he toiled with her perfume, conjuring the memory of her life in his essences and oils, the animal hints of sensuality, the flowers and the fruity bite of the lemons that grew in his secret garden in the Delta. He chopped and brewed, he macerated and stored and applied every trick of this ancient land that he knew. He tried to capture the jeweled gleam of her hair, a double-spiraled errant curl at the base of her neck, the glint of a rosy ruby in a comb, the flash of wit he saw in her eyes. No question but she knew to enchant, and as she enthralled him with her stories, he enchanted the brew in his cauldron, committing the formula to memory and a secret, buried scroll.

Until the day came when he was done, and could do no more. He dreaded her visit, knowing he would now never see her again, or her silent, smiling daughter. He had been paid handsomely for his toil, and yet no payment was enough for the simple song of her voice, a silver tinkle of laughter as she remembered a detail, a place or a caress. This creation was his masterpiece. There was nothing throughout the Empire or far beyond even remotely like it.

“It is finished,” he forced himself to say when she came that afternoon. “There is nothing more I can do, nothing more I can add.”

She pulled at the stopper and inhaled deeply. Her eyes closed and for an instant, she seemed to swoon on her feet. Then, in a sudden shocking movement, she unfastened a brooch on her shoulder and pricked a fingertip. Two crimson drops, a dark, rosy red against the pallor of her skin, glistened in a sunbeam before they vanished into the vial.

“Now,” she said with that same stubborn finality he had heard that first afternoon, “now it is finished.” As she said the words, she fell to the floor as if she had fainted, and her daughter grabbed her and held her. She was dead.

He was speechless. “One thing only she left me,” her daughter said after a while. She took the golden vial from her mother and lifted it up. “She left me this.”

It was his masterpiece, his perfume, the memory of this storyteller in a bottle.

Down through the centuries swirled the memory of that woman and that perfume, through her daughter and her many descendants after her, until a damp and foggy day in a town on the edge of the old world found it again, the world the perfumer had known so many centuries ago.

This long-descended daughter was also a storyteller. In the warp and weft of her tales, she twisted yarns and fables, passions and music, and sometimes her memories of scents and sensations. She was convinced she had heard it all and tried it all, she had broken hearts on two continents and many countries, and there was little left to surprise her, not much to take her breath, her speech or even her words away.

Until a tiny bottle was opened, a tiny spray applied to her skin, and a ruby drop of blood-red rose, of a lemon grove in the Delta and a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, of a memory of a woman and a life well-lived and well loved, a woman like herself, wrenched at her heart and made her cry that such a surfeit of beauty could exist and such powerful emotions could be felt.

Even by the cynic she thought she was.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Notes: Bergamot, lemon, lily-of-the-valley, rose Damascena, jasmine, civet, vanilla.

Amouage Ubar can be bought in many locations, including Luckyscent and First In Fragrance and Alla Violetta Boutique, although you might be required to take out a second mortgage on your house, take a second job or pawn your children if all else fails. Trust me, I’m thinking about it.

Image: Sir Frederik Leighton, Solitude (1901)

L’Eau Déesse – Goddess Water

A review of Serge Lutens’ Fleurs D’Oranger

My mother always said I’d come to no good. My mother also said that one should never underestimate the importance of a very good bra – and a killer perfume.

She was right in both instances. Then again, in a certain manner of speaking, it’s all her fault anyway. She should never have taken me to Paris, never have taken me to Dior and Guerlain, never have bought me my first bottles of Miss Dior and Jicky, never, ever worn so many of the glorious perfumes I will always associate with her – Fidji, Shalimar, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noire, First. As a child, I remember sneaking into her closet and closing the door, breathing in Eau de Maman, and thinking – if this was what womanhood smelled like, it couldn’t possibly be bad.

Now that I’m a woman grown, now that my mother has passed away, now I discover that – it is. Not just bad – but horrific.

Because now, I have graduated into the perfumeaholic equivalent of heroin, of crack cocaine, of…one is far too many and two not nearly enough.

Now, I own my first bell jar of Serge Lutens, and it’s all a slippery downhill ski jump from here. My bank account may never recover.

Back when I first grew addicted to perfume blogs, one name kept coming up. Serge Lutens. The sweet, occult secret of the initiated few. It was said that Serge Lutens perfumes were emotions bottled, olfactory journeys caught in glass, the epitome of what all true perfumes should be, but in this over-regulated, mass-market, youth-obsessed fruitchouli age, so rarely are. They are not mass market, not made to definite demographics, not…common.

These epiphanies are not advertised and in a few cases, rather discombobulating as perfumes go. So…some long time later, I made an effort to investigate the brouhaha for myself, draw my own conclusions and sample them for myself.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes to determine that in my quest for liquid divinity, my perpetual search for something as unusual and unique as myself, Absolute Essence of Tarleisio, I had, at last, arrived.

It was just a matter of time before I had my hot little hands on The Drug – a bell jar but which one? So many of them and so little cash.

So when I finished my first ever novel – all 170000+ words, and in less than nine months – I decreed that my carrot henceforward would be a bell jar of Serge for every completed book, and another – it is to be hoped – for every time I have a hardcover copy in my hand.

A good thing I’m just young enough to be prolific, because so far, nine bottles have my name on them, and those are just the ones I’ve tried.

Alors – a bell jar. I finally decided on the one that completely swept me off my feet from the second I tried it – Fleurs D’Oranger. Orange, bergamot, lemon and all citrus notes have always been my favorites, and orange trees are my favorite trees. I blame my Florida childhood.

Orange blossom is one of the most used notes in perfumes. You would be hard-pressed to name a few classics that don’t contain at least a little. Orange blossom can be…innocent, bridal, fresh, summery, invigorating or – ask anyone with access to an orange grove in full bloom – heady and dizzying.

A few years ago, I invested in a bottle of Dior’s ‘Escale à Portofino’, another orange blossom perfume, and loved it. Sultry, however, was not a word I would use to describe it. It was flirty, lighthearted, summery sunshine in a bottle.

Staring a long, dismal winter in the face in the not-too-distant future, heady sounded like just what I needed to put the va-va in my voom.

My precious arrived the day before yesterday. I almost swooned with pleasure, and that was before I had even opened the box.

I was not disappointed. Because this is the scent of Happy In A Bottle, distilled Absolute Essence of Tarleisio. From the first exuberant arpeggio of true orange blossom and the swelling orchestra of jasmine and tuberose building to a honeyed bright yellow-orange crescendo and finally, to a zesty drydown of orange and nutmeg, this is – heavenly. Not in the light, flirty, fashionable way of Escale á Portofino, nothing in the least like Prada’s wan, anorexic Infusion de Fleurs d’Oranger, this is hot-blooded, sultry, sexy, all-out w-o-m-a-n, drawing honeybees and testosterone bombs by the dozen. Small children will come closer and snuggle on your lap, strange men will ask for your phone number and a dinner date yesterday, just so they can breathe it in. Resistance will be futile. They will be assimilated. Other women will eye you askance, wondering what on Earth is THAT…that breath of celestial happy you exude?

Some have complained about the note of cumin that sneaks in, adding a touch of human sweat to the proceedings, but on me, the cumin combines with the nutmeg to become spicy and smoky, and I don’t get so much as a whiff of skank, or if I do, I could care less.

And that was only three drops. Three drops applied with a cotton swab that permeated my entire apartment, my clothes and even my pillow thirty-six hours later, wafting through my dreams. This is potent to the max. So potent, so outrageously sexy, I really can’t see this on anyone under the age of thirty-five. It takes experience to handle this kind of mojo with conviction. It takes confidence to handle this kind of sillage. A little dab will do you, and if you spray, spray wisely, otherwise your surroundings will be swooning.

On my skin, which usually eats citrus-based scents in nothing flat, it lasted over twenty-four hours, and on cloth, even longer. The orange blossom is apparent from the first seconds all the way to the far drydown, and that’s another unusual thing about this perfume. It’s all about the orange blossom, but it is not boring, not bland, not one-dimensional.

I breathe it in, and I am all of a piece, happy, comfortable in my devastatingly sexy skin, wafting blossom and promises I may or may not keep, knowing I have become – if only for a while – a Goddess walking the Earth.

If this perfume were a Tarot card, it would be the Queen of Wands. Self-contained, sexy, secure, creative, inspiring and strong.

A lot like the woman I try to be. So I better finish off those bestsellers…

Fleurs D’Oranger, an eau de parfum, is in the export line of Serge Lutens perfumes, and available in the 50 ml oblong bottle at Barneys NYC, Luckyscent and Aedes in the US, and at Salons Shiseido in Paris. The 75 ml bell jar – the limited edition – is only available to customers in Europe. I have read elsewhere that there is a definite difference in strength between the oblong bottle and the bell jar, with the bell jar being stronger.

Image: Parfums Serge Lutens, Salons Shiseido, Palais Royal, Paris