One Thousand Scents

Friday, December 26, 2008

Two Become One: Serge Lutens Douce Amere

I am going to be using two words over and over again. Just thought I should warn you. I tried to write around them, but there's no way to avoid them when you're talking about a scent so single-minded in its pursuit of an idea.

The first time I smelled Serge Lutens' Douce Amere, I thought, "It kind of smells like Mirra & Mirra", I Coloniali's version of bitter-sweet (which is what "douce amere" means). I've been wearing the Lutens for nearly a week, and I still think of Mirra & Mirra every time. But they're not interchangeable. I thought they might be, at first: i was smitten with Douce Amere, but I thought, "Well, I could never buy this, because it smells just like something I already own." But where Mirra & Mirra is mostly a single serving--a big bowl of bitter-sweet ice cream--Douce Amere is a succession of courses, each a variation of its theme.

The first course is a curlicue of lemon zest on a dusty, bitter bed of cinnamon sweetened with licorice (which itself has a bitter edge) and a sprinkling of vanilla sugar. Lest you think that the scent will become gourmand, it rapidly adds another pair of notes to the menu: bitter-green wormwood (which gives absinthe its characteristic smell and taste--and its legendary mind-wrecking properties) and sweet, though very abstract, floral notes. (These are officially lily, jasmine, tiare, marigold, and tagetes, but you couldn't identify any one of them if your life depended on it.) Eventually, another bitter note insinuates itself: it resembles the very darkest chocolate, or, more accurately, the peculiar experience of bitter chocolate with the chocolate removed and only the bitterness remaining, accompanied by more of the sugared vanilla. The theme continues almost to the very end (many hours later), with a bit of wood slinking in to give the whole thing some sort of finish: sixteen hours later, there's still a ghost of vanilla caramel left on your skin.

It all sounds very strange, I suppose, and there's no doubt that it's a niche scent, not the sort of thing you might ever expect to find in your average department-store line-up. It's not for everybody, for sure: it wasn't made with an eye to commercial success, instead being an artist's working-through of an idea. But Douce Amere is a flawless composition of two opposing properties, never once veering too far in either direction, never becoming either cloying or astringent. It is magical, and, as perverse as it might seem, an ideal Christmas scent: warm, compelling, a little sexy, something to curl up by the fire with.

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