Imagine a gentlemen’s club. It’s that grey hour before dawn, between the last of the stragglers leaving the bar and the first of the cleaners moving in. Ash from Sobranie cigarettes has been mashed into the deep pile carpets, there are sticky rings of cognac on the bar, and look, there’s Peter O’ Toole holed up in the corner, regaling the cloakroom girls with anecdotes from his time on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. He is smoking a cigarette, but his hands are shaking, and although the girls are too polite to say, at some point during the night, it is quite clear that he has pissed himself. He still looks fabulous, though. He looks like he was born in and will die in that slim white suit and those grimy leather gloves.
Fumerie Turque by Serge Lutens smells like this. It smells of grubby suede, ash, smoke from three hours ago lingering in the air, currants steeped in cognac, dirty patchouli, and honey so dank and dry it approaches the tenor of dried pee. The real accomplishment of this perfume is that it holds all of these potentially brutish element in check. It’s dissolute, but elegant all the same. It is the smell of Peter O’ Toole (God rest his soul), smoking at the after-hours bar, one hand on his Cognac snifter and the other feeling its way up your thigh under the bar.
Funnily enough, I had been dreaming and reading about this perfume for years, and so, when I finally was able to try it out on my skin, it was not at all what I had expected. Where was the billowing smoke, I asked myself, the honey-drenched leather, the kohl-eyed strangers staring me down over the lip of a hookah pipe? That’s why I think that one’s reaction to Fumerie Turque will depend on when you are in your perfume journey. It is not a scent that has instant curb appeal for beginner noses, but likewise, it might be too refined and pale for people who have grown accustomed to the rough, bold, deep perfumes increasingly put out by the niche sector.
As for me, it was simply a question of recalibrating my nose, and my expectations. My frame of reference for tobacco, honey, and smoke, respectively, had mainly been those hugely sweet, almost candied tobacco concoctions such as Tobacco Vanille by Tom Ford and L’Or du Serail by Naomi Goodsir, eye-wateringly skanky honey fragrances like Absolue Pour Le Soir by Maison Francis Kurkdjan, and smoke monsters like Jeke by Slumberhouse and Tribute by Amouage. These are all big and bold perfumes. I cut my teeth on those perfumes. But if those perfumes are the muscled quarterbacks pounding up the turf on the football field, then Fumerie Turque is the slightly aloof European exchange student reading Rilke on the sidelines. This is not a perfume that reveals all of its charms at once.
The more I wore Fumerie Turque, however, the more I began to understand it. Although it was launched in 2003, it seems to have come from a slightly more reserved era, maybe even from the times of Lawrence of Arabia himself, when men wore leather driving gloves and stiff upper lips. It is the sum of the smells coming from a men’s club the morning after, hours after the last cigarette had been smoked and the last cognac spilled on the bar, rolled up altogether, brewed, and strained through a silk cloth into a tiny, precious bottle.
Now that I understand Fumerie Turque, I love it. I feel like a rake when I wear it. It has the same feel (but not smell) to me as Chanel’s Coromandel, akin to putting on your boyfriend’s scratchy fisherman’s jumper or his worn white shirt on your bare skin after getting up from bed. On my skin, it dries down to an almost salty, honeyed suede note, with a hint of ash. It also has an oddly attractive ‘stale perfume’ note in the drydown, approximating the smell of cologne your boyfriend might have been wearing. In short, Fumerie Turque has a lived-in, slightly grimy sexiness, and with a definite feel of the morning after the night before.