Niche Fragrance Magazine

Serge Lutens’ Rose de Nuit: Fascinating “Memento Mori” Rose

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Have you ever heard of a guy called Carl Tanzler? He was a German doctor working in Florida in the 1930s who fell in love with one of his beautiful patients, a young Cuban-American girl called Elena Milagro “Helen” de Hoyos. Elena passed away in 1931 of tuberculosis, but Dr. Carl was so enamored that he later stole her corpse from the tomb, and kept it in his home. As Elena began to decompose, he stuffed her body cavities with rags and replaced her skin with a silk cloth embued with beeswax. He kept her there for years until her family found out and demanded she be re-interred. He missed her so much that he kept going back to the tomb and stealing her body. Anyhow, Google it and you will see what a remarkable job Dr. Carl did in actually preserving the poor Elena.

The reason I am recounting this rather ghoulish story is that Rose de Nuit is kind of the Elena de Hoyos of the rose perfume world. There is a true rose in there somewhere, a mere memory of a living, breathing thing of beauty, but it is smothered and muffled with layers of wax, adipose, and decaying rose petals. The opening verges on the unpleasant. The rose is sour, sharp, and musty, like the dregs of red wine in the glass the morning after. I don’t know what could be going on with the rose and galbanum to be reacting like this against each other – neither of these notes smell unpleasant to me on their own, but together, here, they smell like they are going mano a mano in a sweaty boxing ring.

The sharp rose in the opening is then slowly coated with a layer of beeswax, muffling the rose note even further. The wax adds a note of greasy scalp or hair that has not been washed for a good few days. If I am not making this sound too attractive, it’s because it’s not. The rose dries up and becomes blackened, parched, and leathery in the drydown, and it becomes ever more animalic. This is Elena – a once sweet, fresh rose now dried out by time, with an ever present whiff of sweaty decay underneath the “skin” of waxed silk that dear, thoughtful Dr. Carl made to replace her skin.

The first time I wore it, I was utterly repulsed. But also a little intrigued. I put it on before bed and each time I awoke during the night, I became aware of an enticing aroma surrounding me and emanating off my body. Somehow, the sourness, the body-warmth and sleepy breath of the decaying rose is just…..wonderful. The next morning, it was still going strong on my wrists, and it reminded me of nothing more than the slightly sour, intriguingly musty, altogether human smell of a piece of skin you have licked (or your loved one has licked). Salty, leathery, only vaguely rosey. I was intrigued enough to put in on for a second night running. Same experience. So, I have been wearing this to bed for the past five nights now, a new record for me. The needle on my attraction-repulsion meter is moving closer to attraction. I am not sure that I have the guts to wear this outside the house yet. It is slightly confrontational in its bare bones ugliness. But it is a work of art – of that I am sure.


My name is Claire, I'm a 39-year old mother of two, and I am a freelance writer and consultant. I love perfume, any perfume, practically all of 'em. Other interests such as writing, reading, and painting fall tragically behind the perfume. It's a hobby that tends to be all-consuming (of both my time and my money).

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