Niche Fragrance Magazine

Visiting Uncle Serge

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This Easter I was lucky enough to be able to take a trip to Paris with my daughter. Having spent our first day wandering around the Latin Quarter (she insisted on seeing the dinosaurs in the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes, and the cafés nearby seemed to understand the need for coffee, crêpes and icecream after extensive paleontological explorations), my itinerary on our second day took us to the Champs Elysées. Here we strolled, munched, sniffed, and smiled in the April sunshine, managing to resist the temptation to spend a fortune in the shops. Instead, we headed down through the Jardins to the Place de la Concorde for a ride on the Big Wheel, which gave us remarkable panoramas of Paris, taking in the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and the Louvre.

After more reviving crêpes (a theme is emerging) we made our way to the Palais Royal to visit the shop of someone we sometimes affectionately refer to to as ‘Uncle Serge’. Serge Lutens is one of the original niche perfumers, and his flagship shop in Les Jardins du Palais Royal is a place of pilgrimage for perfumistas from around the world. This would be my first visit. Which explains why we spent half an hour walking up and down the Rue de Valois, wondering where I had gone wrong as there were no glamorous stores, just a wall with a few doors in it. Where was this mysterious shop where people can try the whole of the Lutens range, including the fabled Bell Jars?

It turned out that in Paris when the address says ‘Jardins’ it means ‘Jardins’. One of those doors took us, like Alice in Wonderland, into the elegant and restful courtyard and gardens of the Palais Royal. A clipped regiment of shade trees form an honour guard around these hidden pleasure gardens. Beautifully proportioned and ornamented with fountains and sculptures, there can be no lovelier back yard in Paris. Serge Lutens’ shop is behind those ranks of trees, tucked into a galleria of elegant and eccentric boutiques that sell luxuries from leathergoods to antique kimonos. The purple and black windows of the Lutens shop contained mysterious, darkly glamorous things: a scarf printed with skulls, an Art Deco-styled lipstick and make-up compact of glossy black that resembled an haute couture insect, and a couple of perfume bottles. It was just enough to tempt you in without telling too much of the story.

Inside was a world of purple, with blue and gold highlights on the friezes of suns and stars, moons and esoteric symbols that ran around each room. It felt like walking into Alistair Crowley’s boudoir and was a complete revelation to me. I expected something much more like all the other perfume shops in Paris: light, airy, and eager to sell to you. Here, a spiral staircase dominates the centre of the room – rumour has it there is a VIP area upstairs where special guests are invited – with the different ranges of Serge Lutens fragrances arranged in separate cabinets around the room. I was very naturally eager to try the famous Bell jars, which have very limited availability. Not owning one myself, I had imagined them to be very large, but in fact they were 75ml bottles, not as tall as the rectangular 50ml Lutens bottles I have at home, but round and shaped like bells. The fragrances in them aren’t available from any stockist other than Serge Lutens, so they have a certain cachet.

Of course I had to smell absolutely everything, and I was as enchanted as you would expect. But which fragrance did I choose? Which one captivated me after a decade of imagining this place? Not a bell jar, and not anything I would have expected: Five O’Clock au Gingembre. The scent of an afternoon tea party with gingerbread and spiced cake, this gourmand oriental is pitched perfectly between spices, sweetness and woodiness. I am not keen on sweet fragrances, but this is honeyed just enough to soften and blur the spices, like milk added to tea. I call it a gourmand oriental because as the fragrance wears in, the initial bergamot radiance settles into a ginger and cinnamon spiced woodiness that is very much a light oriental. With a clean patchouli in the base, along with cacao and pepper, this is an easy fragrance to wear – for men as well as women. I will happily wear it to work and suspect it will be ideal in the summer.

It struck me as amusing that in Paris, I fell in love with a fragrance that is supposed to sum up ‘tea at Buckingham Palace’, according to the Serge Lutens sales lady. It is certainly polite enough to be worn to tea, but I think it is rather more exotic than proper, and certainly not prim. I can assure you that it goes perfectly with crêpes though.

A decade ago in a little secondhand bookshop, I bought a biography of an obscure biophysicist written by a New York Times journalist and my life changed. Yes, I blame it all on Luca Turin and Chandler Burr; thanks to them I fell in love with L'Heure Bleue and haven't looked back since.

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