Serge in the Summertime

It’s curious to note the heaviness of Middle Eastern perfume formulae considering just how hot it can get in that part of the world.  The standard Western approach to heat is to head for the cologne bottles which are usually about sixty percent citrus and forty percent something else that isn’t heavy.  I read recently that the standard response to rising thermometers in Saudi Arabia is to wear vanilla.  Vanilla?   I’d feel much too much like a melting Mr. Softee in 100 degree temperatures.  Perhaps they have less humidity than we do on the East coast in the States.  Who knows?

Serge Lutens, however, who lives in Morocco for part of every year, seems to have adopted a summertime stratagem of his own and it is the soliflor.

Soliflors are evocations of the scent of a single flower.  It was a bold move, from a perfumery point of view, because you put a foot wrong with a soliflor and the whole enterprise is ruined. Kind of like those stone causeways no wider than ten or twelve inches  that crusaders could escape across and then destroy before retreating into the keep of the besieged castle.

Now M. Lutens is a great admirer of Middle Eastern culture and his choice is probably not without precedent.  He lives in a part of the world where rosewater is used to douse the walls of mosques and where jasmine in all its forms is revered.  It must have taken some guts to introduce into his line a rose soliflor, Sa Majeste la Rose,  a jasmine poetically titled A la Nuit, and a green lily called simply Un Lys.

I know two of them very well, having spent some months with both Sa Majeste and Un Lys.  They were charming companions, and they were both unusual among modern perfumes for having dry downs that lasted, and having an accuracy about their respective floral muses that you seldom find these days.  I’ve said already that the soliflor is difficult to pull off, and it bears repeating.  Floral bouquets are much easier.

Perfumers can use different notes to camouflage what is going on behind the scenes in the scent, there’s just a little bit of room to hide awkward transitions or slight shifts between acidity and sweetness, but not with the soliflor.  Get it wrong and it’s just wrong and there’s not much you can do about it.  Everyone knows what roses smell like.*  Knowing that, they spot the error at once. Same with lilies,  same with violets and so on.

The Serge Lutens soliflors were extraordinary too in recalling a particular kind of rose and a particular kind of lily.  (The jasmine smelt like jasmine to me, and as I’ve grown jasmine indoors for years, I find less deviation between species than with either roses or lilies) The rose of Sa Majeste was the apple rose scent you find in certain old roses.

One writer of a review on, I think Basenotes, said it recalled the Bourbon roses. It reminds me of La Reine Victoria, which does have a distinct apple note in its perfume just like Sa Majeste.  It’s an odd little detail and I doubt if the public in general will care what kind of rose a particular rose soliflor smells of, but I find it appealing.

This is not a portrait of a rose, any rose, in summer.  It’s a portrait of a specific rose in June, and if you grow roses-and I do-it’s what you want.  Tea Rose for instance, or Stella, are generic rose – “Rose here, yeah, whaddaya want?”  Well, I want a singular rose and not just a homogenized rose smell.

Un Lys too struck me as being a particular lily smell.  Lilies smell strikingly different.  Asiatics have little smell, and Orientals have a big powerful smell akin to Wisteria but whiffier, like those non-stick pans when the coating burns.  Some people like this, I find it a bit hard to handle but then there is the smell of the Easter Lily which is lightly green and it’s this, or possibly the slightly stronger version of the Madonna Lily that Serge Lutens chose.  It’s beautiful and set off with a very light amount of vanilla that happens to suit it’s green structure very well.  Un Lys is much less lasting than Sa Majeste, but you couldn’t expect the smell of lilies to stick around for long.  That would be gilding it, the lily I mean.

*(Or, to be more accurate, since roses smell of all sorts of things, they think they do and really don’t – but that’s another topic for another day.)

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