One Thousand Scents

Friday, January 09, 2009

Duality: Louve and Luctor et Emergo

As you will know if you have ever baked a cherry loaf (a sort of pound cake studded with halved Maraschino cherries), it's usual to add a few drops of almond extract to it, because this, perversely, will make it smell (and therefore taste) more cherry-like. Cherries and almonds are, in fact, related, both members of the genus Prunus, which is the Latin word for "plum" (and of course prunes are dried plums), except that we eat the fruit of cherries, discarding the pits, and eat the pits of almonds, discarding the fruit. The characteristic fragrance of almonds and cherries, as far as I can tell, comes primarily from benzaldehyde, which alone has a mostly almondy smell but which in combination with other aldehydes has more of a fruity, cherry-like scent.

If you're going to make a commercial fragrance, then, that's based on the almond, you have two options: play up this similarity of scent and give the wearer a cherry-almond, or tinker with benzaldehyde chemically to make it smell more purely of almonds.

Or, I guess, you have a third option: not care. This, I would hazard, is what happened with Serge Lutens' Louve.

"Louve" is French, the feminine of "loup", and therefore means "female wolf". I have no idea at all what this has to do with almonds, cherries, benzaldehyde, or anything else that is present in this scent. (In addition to the sweet, strong cherry-loaf smell, there is a trace of urine, a thick scattering of powder, a sort of metallic whine, and some slightly decomposed rose petals.)

Louve is quite simply the most incomprehensible thing I have ever smelled. I suppose if some enterprising perfumer ever makes a scent out of carrion-flower and tulips, or wheatgrass and mesquite, then that will be the most incomprehensible thing I've ever smelled, but until then, Louve, I think, will hold pride of place. It makes no sense as a composed scent. What it boils down to is that Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake have filled an unwashed toilet with baby powder and then buried in it almond-scented cherries (or cherry-flavoured almonds, it makes no difference) which they have forced you to pick out with your teeth. The powder gets up your nose.

As always seems to be the case with scents you don't like, Louve sticks around. The first time I wore it, a few weeks ago, I put on a couple of sprays at 1:45, just before heading out to work--a dreadful mistake, of course, to apply an untested new scent before leaving for the day, and I don't know what I was thinking. At 11:30 p.m., when I got home, I could still smell it, distinctly if not strongly. The next morning at 7 a.m., it still had enough projection to insinuate itself into my nose from eighteen inches away. This is a scent with some serious staying power.

If only it were any good.

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I recently ordered a whole lot of samples from The Perfumed Court, and because it can be really really hard to choose when you're faced with so many hundreds of tempting alternatives, I only ordered collections: 12 gourmand scents, 10 rose scents for men, 7 ambergris scents, that sort of thing. (The gourmands and the roses were all shipped in the same little jewellery box, and that box smells so good!) I'm unfortunately one of those people who gets paralyzed in front of something as simple as a fast-food menu, so when it comes to such a huge array, let someone else make the choices, I say.

Among the gourmands was a vial of Luctor et Emergo, which is Latin for, depending on how literally you care to translate it, "I struggle and emerge" or "I emerge victorious", from a Dutch fashion house called The People of the Labyrinths. It's ten years old and I'd never smelled it, but I've never smelled a lot of things, and I was curious about it because of its cult status. When I put it on and gave it a sniff, the very first thought in my head was, "Oh, that's Louve."

Well, it isn't, really. It has a lot in common with it at first blush: almonds, cherries, and a snootful of baby powder. But the horribleness isn't there, and Luctor et Emergo is a mirror-universe version of Louve, lovely where the other is grating. The powdered-almond-cherry accord gradually reveals a core of nicotiana, or tobacco-flower, and a very light, gentle woody incense with a dark-chocolate undertone. There isn't a whole lot of complexity to the scent: it smells very modern.

As usual when I really hate something, I will concede that many people love Louve. (In fact, most Lutens scents seem deliberately created to polarize; the controversy is as much part of the line as the spare packaging.) But to me there's no contest. I can see myself owning a bottle of Luctor et Emergo, that's how good it is (although for all I know I'll be tired of it by the time I've used up my sample, I'm so fickle). If you want to spend a whole lot of money on a bottle of cherry loaf (Louve is currently $140 for 50 mL at Luckyscent, Luctor et Emergo $165 for 100 mL at Aedes de Venustas), Luctor et Emergo is both the better scent and the better bargain. Get samples first!

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