One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 15, 2013

Art and Commerce: Fumerie Turque by Serge Lutens (eventually)

Last week it was tobacco and this week it's tobacco again and I have a feeling that, since winter is setting in fast, it's going to be mostly reviews of warm things and comfort scents and Orientalia for the next three months or so.

Do you read News of the Weird? It updates every Sunday and it’s generally just a whole lot of fun: strange, awful, or ridiculous news stories, encapsulated and presented for your weekly amusement. That plus PostSecret are the first things I read when I fire up my computer on a Sunday morning.


This is a 2009 “News of the Weird classic” from the most recent issue:

People With Too Much Money: In April (2008) the Swiss watchmaker Romain Jerome (which the year before created a watch made from remnants of the Titanic) introduced the "Day&Night" watch, which unfortunately does not provide a reading of the hour or the minute. Though it retails for about $300,000, it only tells whether it is "day" or "night" (using a complex measurement of the Earth's gravity). CEO Yvan Arpa said studies show that two-thirds of rich people "don't (use) their watch to tell what time it is," anyway. Anyone can buy a watch that tells time, he told a Reuters reporter, but only a "truly discerning customer" will buy one that doesn't. [Wall Street Journal, 4-25-2008]

And naturally, contrarian that I am, I need to make an argument as to why a $300K watch is not worthy of ridicule.

I mean I wouldn’t buy one, no matter how much money I had, and you probably wouldn’t, either. But people who could afford a $300,000 watch are not like you and me. If you were say worth more than $10 billion dollars, and over a hundred people currently are, then your perspective on what’s doable and purchasable would necessarily change. Once you’ve given away countless millions or even billions to charity and created a bunch of companies to employ tens of thousands of people and bought some houses and some cars, you’ve still got more money than you could reasonably spend in a lifetime. Maybe you take up watch-collecting. Maybe you have dozens of beautifully worked examples of the art form, and then you see this kind of ridiculous and ridiculously expensive but also strikingly beautiful watch: well, why wouldn’t you buy it if you could afford to? The thrill of the limited edition, of something that only a small number of people will be able to own, is not nothing.

You could argue that anyone with that kind of money to blow on a watch has too much money. But what if it were a painting? Is there a painting out there that’s worth $300K to some collector?

If you were an acclaimed sculptor whose work was in demand around the world; if you made a small, intricately detailed sculpture which was being cast in bronze, limited to nine pieces, after which the mold would be destroyed; if you thought that each of those sculptures was worth $300,000; if nine extremely wealthy art collectors agreed with you and bought those beautiful objects to own and enjoy: would anybody think there was anything wrong with that?* Naysayers might grumble that art prices are ridiculous, that some people have more money than brains, that the money could better have been used for charitable enterprises: but in the end, most people would agree that if you have the (legitimately acquired, let’s stipulate) money, then you get to buy more or less whatever you want with it.

So how is a watch different from a sculpture? Because art isn’t supposed to be practical but a watch is? I don't think so: I think a watch can be an objet d’art as much as anything else can. So can a fountain pen: I adore fountain pens and have a bunch of them, most extremely cheap (a clutch of the joyous $3-ish Pilot Petit1 pens) and a few nice ones, nothing more than $50, but if I had a whole lot of money I would unhesitatingly buy

the jade-panelled Graf von Faber-Castell 2011 Pen of the Year, which I think is a profoundly beautiful piece of art. I’d use it all the time, too. It’s currently £3000, VAT included, and, if I had that kind of money, so worth it. 

All of this is relevant to people who love perfumes, of course, because high-quality perfumes serve little practical purpose and are often expensive well beyond their actual cost to produce, but they inspire the collector’s passion and are considered by their devotees to be well worth the price.

My own personal mania is for Serge Lutens scents, which I think are a form of olfactory art. I have I think thirteen full bottles of his scents, and every one of them is something I love and wear as often as I can. Three and a half years ago I was in Paris for a single day, made a pilgrimage to the Serge Lutens boutique, and, on the assumption that I would never be there again, bought two 75-mL bell jars: Fourreau Noir and Fumerie Turque**. I think I paid €125 each, which was about $175 at the time, the most I have ever spent on a scent and worth every penny: I have gotten endless pleasure from those two bottles.

Fumerie Turque means "Turkish smoking-room", and unlike last week's Le Tabac, which was mostly just a pouchful of cherry tobacco, Fumerie Turque is the story of what happens when a roomful of men are smoking it. It smells not only of tobacco but of its pungent smoke; of dried fruit and of honey-and-rosewater baklava for snacking; of leather upholstery; of good clean sweat. Later on, hours and hours later, most of the smoke has drifted away, the men have left their hookah den, and Fumerie Turque smells mostly of the honey in Miel de Bois, which to my mind is an awfully good thing to smell like.

If you would like to read a completely contradictory review, you ought to head over to Kafkaesque, whose writer is one of those people who can fractionate a scent down to its precise elements and timings (I can't) and who loathes Fumerie Turque as much as I love it. And maybe you'll hate it as much as he does; it's not accessible and loveable, that's for sure. But it is astonishing and complex and wondrous, and that is good enough for me.

* And, in fact, this is not far from being the case with the Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal, who produced a number of sculptures — some small enough to be worn on a chain around your neck — which were also fiendishly difficult puzzles, such as the Goliath sculpture seen here.

You see that fig leaf covering his groin? Deep inside the piece as two of its puzzles elements are buried two sets of genitalia, one circumcised and the other not, and you can assemble the sculpture (which comes with an instruction book — these puzzles are difficult) with any of the three options showing and the other two tucked away. To the best of my knowledge, none of Berrocal’s pieces ever sold for three hundred grand (and a few of them are available on eBay for between $600 and $16,500), but the principle is the same: relatively rare artwork that doubles as something else, intended for a small coterie of knowledgeable collectors.

** In truth, I didn't know at the time that Fumerie Turque was also available in the 50-mL spray bottle: it I had, I would have bought it in that format, because I like spray bottles and also because I can't quite imagine emptying a 50-mL bottle as it is and  I'll definitely never use up 75 mL of anything. Mais je ne regrette rien. Every Lutens enthusiast should have one of these gorgeous, gorgeous bottles.

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  • Thank you for the link referral. You know, I think Fumerie Turque has been reformulated from the beauty that it was when you bought your bell-jar. I've noticed that those who have tried it lately have had a similar sort of experience that I did. I so, so wanted to love it. I expected to, in fact, but my skin simply wasn't compliant, I'm afraid. I adore tobacco scents (am wearing one now, as we speak), so I even tested it out again when I was at Les Palais Royal last month. Nope. No luck. Others have talked about reformulation, and I think it must be true.

    Par contre, my experience with Un Fourreau Noir... super! A stunning fragrance. Amusingly, I'm someone who normally loathes lavender fragrances with a passion due to a childhood spent, in part, in very close proximity to Grasse and to endless sachets of dried lavender. Only Uncle Serge could make a lavender fragrance that would bowl me over.

    Speaking of tobacco, have you tried Phaedon's Tabac Rouge? Very sweet, but you do seem to be on a tobacco kick again. :) As a less purely tobacco-centered fragrance, might I suggest George by Jardins d'Ecrivains? It's inspired by George Sand, and, if you can tolerate neroli/orange blossoms, it's worth a sniff for how different it is. :) Best, Kafka

    By Blogger Kafka, at 1:57 PM  

  • Not only do I expect Fumerie Turque has been reformulated, I guess I'd be surprised if it hadn't been by now. Everything else is.

    And yet when I read your description of it, I think that we could well be talking about the same scent from very different points of view. I love Miel de Bois, which many hate. I despise Louve but (although it is the rare scent too sweet for me to wear) I love Rahät Loukoum, which is very similar. I am quite certain that your skin, your diet, your nose, your psychological bent, and when it comes right down to it your entire history and physiology have as much to do with how you react to a scent as anything the bottle actually contains.

    I haven't tried either of the tobacco scents you mention, but I'll put them on my list of things to be on the lookout for. I am not a huge fan of neroli (with the exception of L'Artisan's Séville à L'aube); still, I'll try almost anything. Luckyscent carries Phaedon, so I'll make sure to get a sample of it next time I'm ordering: "very sweet" is not usually a problem for me. Thanks for the tips.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 2:42 PM  

  • Miel de Bois was another surprise for me, and pretty much went the same way as Fumerie Turque. I had expected to love it: I love the honey note, and have never once had problems with it. Unfortunately, Miel de Bois was the first honey fragrance that my skin refused to comply with. It was screechingly urinous and acrid on me.

    Interesting about the Louve -vs- Rahat Loukhoum on you. I was reading some discussion of those two just the other day, and most people fell on the Louve side *because* it wasn't so sweet or cherry-dominated. I haven't tried either one, and it may be a while as I'm generally not one for gourmand or very sweet things.

    As for Seville à L'Aube, I'm one of the tiny minority who wasn't a fan, but then, I'm also the heathen who didn't like Cuir de Russie, Aventus, and Vero Profumo's Rubj, so clearly, I need to stay in exile in a gulag in Siberia. ;) :)

    By Blogger Kafka, at 3:28 PM  

  • I can't explain it, but I bought a 50ml bottle of Fumerie Turque just a few months ago (January 2014), in a reputable perfumery full with Lutens, and paid it just 60 euros.
    Now it seems to have the same price of Gold.

    By Blogger RaidersLostScent, at 9:06 AM  

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