One Thousand Scents

Friday, December 07, 2012

Versions of the Truth: Serge Lutens Chêne


Some time ago I ordered I think fifteen or so Serge Lutens samples from an online sampling company. Two of them had leaked badly in the mail, and the company cheerfully replaced them: all the rest were fine. I stored them with my other samples and occasionally pulled one out to write about, but most of them just sat in their plastic bags in their lightproof box, patiently awaiting my return.

Or so I thought! They weren't merely waiting for me: they were transforming themselves, or being transformed. The bottles that had leaked in transit were trying to warn me: they were inherently flawed in some way, as I discovered this week when I decided to choose another Lutens to write about. All of the remaining Lutens samples from my purchase have evaporated to an extent, some more than others. (They were sealed in zippered plastic bags, which are not, I now know, air-tight: the tiny spray bottles certainly weren't.) They're not dregs, some thick oily muck adhered to the bottom, but they're not intact, either. The top notes might have fled, but Lutens perfumes, with their preponderance of woods and balsams and orientalia, are never about the top notes anyway. At any rate, they have almost certainly changed: to what extent I can't say, because I have nothing to compare them to.

A clock is ticking: I didn't know it, but it's been ticking for a while, and now that I can hear it, I feel the pressure of time. So here's what's going to happen: I am going to rocket through nine Serge Lutens scents in the next few weeks, I am going to sample them all before they depart their little spray vials completely, and I am going to write about all of them, but these reviews are going to be untrustworthy. All reviews are untrustworthy, because they're subjective, but these are going to be doubly so because the vials of scents that I have are transformed by their partial evaporation and so they are presumably not going to be exactly what you would get if you opened a fresh bottle and spattered some of its contents on your skin. This is true anyway of any scent that's more than a year out of the factory: perfumes are active things, they change over time, and they are deliberately changed as well by their manufacturers. Perhaps the Chêne-that-I-have is from an earlier or later batch than the Chêne-that-you-have and even in its intact form wouldn't have been quite the same. We'll never know. All I can tell you about is what I have in front of me and on my skin: it may be the truth, it may be some half-truth, or it may be a complete falsehood, but it's all I have.

Chêne is the French word for oak, and so if you didn't know anything about Lutens you would assume that Chêne smelled of oak, sturdy and imposing. You would be wrong, however: Lutens can tell the truth (Miel de Bois smells of wood and honey) or he can lead you wildly astray (Cèdre smells mostly of tuberose), but he will generally not deliver exactly the thing you expect. And so Chêne smells of wood, yes, but it, or the reduced version that I have, the version that may or may not smell like your version, is thick and soft, with a suggestion of fruit (nearly inevitable in a Lutens), in this case pineapple, and a puddingy texture, creamy, only lightly sweetened with immortelle. Presumably unisex, as most Lutenses are, Chêne does in fact smell like a men's fragrance with its huge quantities of wood, but there's no edge to the wood at all, nothing freshly sawn or piercing: recognizably wood, but, perversely, wood as comfort food, wood as dessert.

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