Review: Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin — 5.0 points

The most memorable compositions are often times the simplest compositions. They focus on one dominant theme, but the execution of such compositions is far from simple. Their concise nature calls for strong contrasts, ideal proportions, and minimal embellishments. A salient example would be a rose theme, for rose essence can be a very good perfume by itself, so any rose compositions must exceed that expectation, let alone transcending its peers.


Enter La Fille de Berlin (Serge Lutens, 2013), a composition by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake. It is what I would imagine the perfect red rose to be. The plot is simple, but it is done with such mastery that its cogent essay on a crimson rose is most convincing. For the first ten minutes, all I can smell is a sweet majestic rose: opulent, jammy, and satisfyingly dark. It evokes the luxurious sensation of red velvet cushions of grand opera houses.

It is a beautiful rose, no doubt, but what makes it memorable is the way the rose accord is minimally but strikingly embellished. Amidst the sweeping richness of it all is the contrasting clarity of pepper and green-metallic note, much like that of geranium. These facets of the rose are rarely observed, but here they are used to distinctive effect. The result is a rose larger than life.

And the composition maintains this signature towards the dry down, with only soft sandalwood and musk to round off the sharpness of its bright notes. Simple yet powerful, the quality and personality of La Fille de Berlin distinguishes it from its rose brethren. I am in awe of how luxurious the rose feels and how its lustre remains through to the dry down. Even if you are not a rose fan, I highly recommend smelling it to see just how a short parable can be just as gripping.



Review: Chanel Sycomore — 4.5 points

I have few vetiver perfumes that I love and admire. These are Vétiver (Guerlain, 1959), which is an all-time classic, and Encre Noire (Lalique, 2006), which I have come to think of as a modern classic. But, they are not the vetiver that I mostly reach for. That honour goes to Sycomore (Chanel, 2007).


I have few vetiver perfumes that I love and admire. These are Vétiver (Guerlain, 1959), which is an all-time classic, and Encre Noire (Lalique, 2006), which I have come to think of as a modern classic. But, they are not the vetiver that I mostly reach for. That honour goes to Sycomore (Chanel, 2007).

Sycomore is likely named after Sycamore (Chanel, 1930), an aldehydic floral created by perfumer Ernest Beaux. However, Sycomore was composed by perfumers Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake, and it features vetiver as the main woody note.

But just as important are also the accents that shape the vetiver. The interpretation here toys with the green and sweet woody facet of vetiver. From the bright pine needles in the opening to the smoky and woody vetiver, Sycomore grows and expands on skin, much like its namesake the sycamore tree. I am rather fond of its sweet woody vetiver note towards the dry down, which gives it an addictive signature. In this respect, it is similar to Vétiver de Guerlain (1959) and naturally Vétiver Tonka (Hermès, 2004), but, whereas Vétiver de Guerlain is sweet in the sense of being almost oriental and Vétiver Tonka is praline-like, Sycomore is restrained. Its take on vetiver is sublime, at once sophisticated and austere.

Sycomore is subtly orchestrated. It is complex, yet nothing is overdone. Wearing it, I feel as though I dressed myself up but remain comfortable. For this reason, it acquires a special place even amongst my favourite vetivers and wins hands down when it comes to the frequency of use.


Review: Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule — 4.0 points

The attractive qualities of sandalwood — that peculiar mix of warm milk and dry woods — were what had sent me once on a quest for the perfect sandalwood perfume. Naturally, a composition with a name like Santal Majuscule (Serge Lutens, 2012) — literally ‘sandalwood in capitals’ — caught my attention. And it did not disappoint.


Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake delivers on that promise with a seductive accord of sandalwood and musky rose. The rich milky character, for which sandalwood is adored, is not only there fair and square, but it is also reinforced by a soft caress of floral and musky notes. Underscored by bright, spicy cinnamon on top, the contrastingly plush, creamy accord forms the impression for most of the composition. It is almost decadent.

Within the silky, creamy accord, patchouli backs the woody element and lends a subtle gourmand suggestion. The result is an addictive blend of musky, creamy softness and a hint of cocoa. Basically, it is a contrast between creamy and woody notes, and it gives Santal Majuscule an intriguing quality.

My requirement for a big dose of sandalwood was more than satisfied. The strong, clear-cut idea of a sandalwood is offered here with interesting embellishments and performance to match. I wear Santal Majuscule whenever I simply want a cosy creamy aura and dry woods that wrap around me all day, and just a spritz or two certainly goes a long way.

Review: Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille — 4.0 points

We describe something colloquially as ‘vanilla’ when it is considered ordinary, standard, and possesses no specialities. In the same vein, the warm, sweet effect of vanilla, though universally appreciated, can be just as plain and unexciting or even downright cloying, especially when it is used ad nauseam, as has been the case in many recent launches.

But when used judiciously, vanilla is one of the most versatile and powerful tools in perfumery. In large quantities, it provides much of the sensual warmth to the base of Jicky (Guerlain, 1889) and forms the classical oriental accord à la Shalimar (Guerlain, 1925). In small amounts, it can still provide great effects by highlighting the character and increasing the impact of a composition. For instance, it lends a warm touch to the cold aldehydic accords in Chanel N°5 (1921) and Arpège (Lanvin, 1927) and smooths out the rough-hewn quality in chypres like Ma Griffe (Carven, 1947) and Miss Dior (1947). Vanilla in perfumery can thus be thought of as salt in cooking: it brings out the flavour, but too much of it and the dish becomes unpalatable.

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In the case of Un Bois Vanille (Serge Lutens, 2003) by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, there is the challenge of focusing solely on vanilla, but without succumbing to the cloyingly sweet cliché. In other words, the challenge is akin to using a lot of salt and giving it character without rendering the dish inedible. To that, I think of my favourite salty food like anchovies and dried seaweed; their marine tang best matches the sea salt, with which they are prepared. Likewise, the solution to the composition of Un Bois Vanille is a classical one: an oriental accord with vanilla at the centre.

By layering vanilla with strong oriental notes, Un Bois Vanille puts the richness of this delectable raw material into perspective. Vanilla is not just sweet here; it is, in fact, multi-faceted. The anisic liquorice in the opening contrasts with and highlights the plush vanilla that soon emerges in full glory. A mélange of oriental notes, including milky sandalwood, benzoin, tonka bean, and musk, accompanies and enhances the main theme towards the dry down. There are also plenty of interesting twists in the layers, from beeswax and lactonic coconut to roasted almond.

The orchestration of Un Bois Vanille gives the luscious vanilla its surreal, distinctive quality. The spicy, creamy, and balsamic accents along with the layers of notes emphasise the curious nature of vanilla. They suggest something delicious and unapologetically decadent. And, the waves of its warmth hover around me from dawn till dusk. Such is the quality, for which I most crave in the bleakest of winter days. Un Bois Vanille is an interesting vanilla that is anything but… vanilla.