Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Serge Lutens

When you ask Serge Lutens a question don't expect an answer that panders or intimates; his lines are clear and sharp, but highly unpredictable. Known for his steady talent as a designer (fragrance, fashion, beauty and a few other domains) he thrives on the subtle trace of chaos latent in a fleeting moment. Lutens creates in the present, detached from influences that tempt many to drop anchor in the past or project wildly into the future. Living in the fulcrum of creation he will happily sacrifice socially accepted notions of balance, even his own preconceived notions, if the end result forges a new way of seeing.

Perfume lovers adore his fragrances because when Serge Lutens makes something he means it. His vision is not predicated on the evaporation rates of base, middle and top notes. Each fragrance he designs (in collaboration with perfumer Christopher Sheldrake) follows an olfactory narrative arc subject to the moment's choosing. For Lutens "Perfume is a form of writing, an ink, a choice made in the first person, the dot on the i, a weapon, a courteous gesture, part of the instant, a consequence." 

When reading Lutens' responses to the Glass Petal Smoke "Sensory Questionnaire" it's evident that this artist doesn't clutch his olfactory passport like a tourist enamored with nostalgia and vogue. Forthrightness, ambiguity and collision are his ports of call, qualities you will find in every bottle of perfume with his name on it.


1. What does your sense of smell mean to you?
My sense of smell is connected to others. If it were detachable, it would be anomalous. Smell is an important sense because the nose is primarily an evaluator. Originally, it allows one to be on guard, to hate or to love. It is not used to buy perfumes! It permits an evaluation relative to a given sensitivity. It is also interesting to note that from birth to death the olfactory cells are the only cells in the human body to be renewed approximately every 30 days; the only ones to do so!*

2. What are some of your strongest scent memories?
The strongest is primarily related to a situation, not the olfactory memory itself. A smell cannot be isolated from its context, but it’s often the odor that we thought we had forgotten that comes back violently, like a poison or a paradise. Vanilla can be a delight for some and hell for others. For my part, I remember the smell of the earth’s burning breath after rain or recall the warmth of my scarf on winter days when I would bury my nose in it.

3. What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking & / or your environment)?
Whatever instantly affects me. If I'm hungry, it may be the smell of something cooking. Contrarily, after eating, odors of this type disgust me.

4. Do you have any favorite smells that are regarded as strange?
I'm not sure. I love the smell of rubber when it's hot, or even that of olive oil, but it can also make me sick. In my home, like in every man’s home, nothing is fixed. If we are fixed, we become stupid!

5. Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
I eat very little. I like cumin as its smell can touch me, that of clean skin slightly warmed by life. For the rest, I am led to a kind of asceticism, the only condition for ultimate creation.

6. What smells do you dislike most?
Those that immediately do not please me. You know, you can hate the best perfume worn by someone you dislike and instead, appreciate ordinary scents on loved ones. This is an ensemble linked to a sensibility, a context, which is judged. The nose alone, without sensibility, remains a nose!

7. What did you smell first dislike, but learned to love?
I never "learned” to love a smell. However, I allowed myself to be “invaded”; childhood prefers to be lulled rather than to discover. Thereafter, an odor that seemed pungent at first, like civet, musk, castoreum, once settled on the skin, becomes a true paradise!

8. What mundane smells inspire you?
If they do I am not aware of them as they are common and affect me without my knowledge. Water has a smell. Earth and skins also have a smell. It is there! This reassures us as a presence but fails to get through to our conscious, like a child who sees his mother around him. This is unconsciously recorded in us. 

9. What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
All odors, not one particularly! As you know, everything is recorded in us by age seven - the age of reason - once done, we do not discover anything; we rediscover!

10. What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
None. I cannot define the smell of love. It’s variable.

11. What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?
I am not a criminal returning permanently to the place of his assassination to smell the blood. As for the stories of grandmothers, jam ... not for me! I still prefer the criminal; it distracts! 

12. What fragrance(s) remind you of places you visited on vacation?
I'm never on vacation. I am always doing something with my head or my hands. To answer your question, however, even if you've never been to Morocco or Japan, you will be amazed, because the smell from the origins of the earth has been moved by winds, rivers, bees, etc., you will find them in their original form or another. As you can guess, the scent of tourism is not my thing at all!

13. Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you?
There are numerous pieces of literature, but they are more about how to convey emotion rather than a simple olfactory evocation. Actually, it is almost in the entire masterpiece that we find a perfume. As we say in French, the scent of a novel, the scent of a film, the scent of a person. What remains! I find this fragrance in the works of all authors that I love: Proust (of course), Baudelaire, Mallarme, Genet, etc. Like incense they are burned into memory! 


The perfumes of Serge Lutens are naturally drawn to the landscape of skin, inspiring an addictive derangement of the senses wherever they dress the air. If you have never owned a Serge Lutens fragrance you may want to prime your nose with Féminité du Bois, Ambre Sultan, and Fleurs D'Oranger. Glass Petal Smoke's favorites are always changing. These are currently at the front of the fragrance wardrobe: Vitriol d'Oeilette, A La Nuit, L'Eau Froide, and Un Lys.

*Smell sensory neurons in the nose live for approximately 30 days after which they are replaced by new cells. New cells are generated by adult stem cells located in the olfactory epithelium.

Thanks to perfumer Christophe Laudamiel of DreamAir who assisted with the French to English translation of Msr. Lutens' Sensory Questionnaire.

Image Credits:
Micrograph of human smell receptor by Professor P. Motta, Department of Anatomy, University of La Sapienza, Rome, from the Science Photo Library. Rights revert to owner

Photo of Cumin by Rebecca Siegel via Creative Commons limited license.

Photo of steaming pot on a stove by J. Cliss via Creative Commons license.

Photo of "The Unsubmissive Plant," by Remedios Varo.

Photo of antique pharmacy perfume bottle by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved. 

Ottoman miniature of doctors instructing a pharmacist from the University of Istanbul.

Micrograph photo of aspirin crystal by Annie Cavanaugh via Wellcome Images. Rights revert back to the owner.

Photograph of woman with lace veiled face from Serge Lutens. 

Photo of text from Edgar Allen Poe's "Mask of the Red Death" on the window of Antoinette's Patisserie in Hastings on Hudson. Created by Clem Paulsen. Rights revert back to the owner.

Photo interpretation of distraction through trees by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

Photo of Atlas Mountains in Morocco by French Self Catering. Licensed under Creative Commons.