Luca’s Rose Garden

Nombre Noir by Serge Lutens

If black can have a smell, it might as well have a number.

Today, we sniff the great and near-mythical fragrance, Shiseido Nombre Noir.  This fragrance, which was, for a long time, the favorite fragrance of perfume critic Luca Turin, is something of a legend in the fragrance community.  I consider it an honor – a very lucky one – to be able to sniff this perfume and describe it for you.

We were discussing this scent on Basenotes, when somebody mentioned having seen it recently.  Thinking it might actually be out there, I wandered around on the internet,  looking for various bits of information.  At one point, I found some information on the website of the decanting and sample service, Surrender To Chance.  And then I noticed that the fragrance was actually for sale, and that I could get 1/4 mL for only $20.

Shocked!  Shocked, I say!  Shocked that we could actually get some of this to smell.  Shocked even more that we could actually afford it.

In any case, we will now begin the ceremonial sniffing of this legendary fragrance.

Knit, mi amiga – this one’s for you!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

My first chore is to open the mailer from Surrender To Chance.  A hideously efficient affair, it forces me to cut the stuck plastic outer layer, at the joint, rather than try to tear at the adhesive, which appears to be stronger than the plastic itself.

The package opened, I take my first whiff.  A tiny bit of odd fragrance – familiar but distant in my memory – only makes me more doubtful.  I have no idea what it is – only that it is strange.

A tiny espresso candy wrapper falls out of the pack.  WTF?  Looking back into the pack, I am relieved to see that there is more.  Somebody has a sense of humor.  At least it wasn’t coffee beans.  Unwrapping the rolled-up receipt, which smells even stranger, a tiny bit of taped padding falls out.

Nombre Noir Sample

Full Sample Worthy!

Well, this is pretty much the moment of truth.  If the odd, screeching, mothball fragrance on the paper is Nombre Noir, this is going to be a serious WTF.

Cautiously, I open the small package by cutting the tape.  I open one end of the polystyrene puff-bag, and out pops a small vial, containing a surprisingly but reassuringly yellow liquid.

Nombre Noir Sample.

Nombre Noir – the real deal.

Cool.  We have arrived.  The sniff.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Sniffing around the seal of the vial, I detect something warmer than the cold mothball fragrance on the paper.  My instant impression is White Rose Natural by Shiseido, which I am very, very, very fortunate enough to own.  That is one of the most amazing fragrances ever.  But the tiny whiff of *something* just brought that to mind instantly.  Not really in any fair way, but I am faithfully recording my thoughts.  WordPress is my lab notebook.

OK.  Here goes.

I crack open the vial, and sniff intently for half a minute, then close the vial.

The fragrance IS somewhat reminiscent of White Rose Natural, but it is clearly less rosy.  It is odd, but the oddity is subtle and beautiful.  It has something vaguely reminiscent of my wife’s beloved but rather baroque rose fragrance, Fleurs de Bulgarie, by Creed.  That sort of ornamental rose from days gone by.  But just a touch.  A smidgeon, so to speak.  The Victorian ornateness is gone, but the class remains.  Impressive.  The fragrance is both warm and chilly.  I like it.  The cool stuff that infested the receipt and package is there, but it is balanced by something warm which makes it veer into guy territory.  I can see how Turin fell for this stuff.  It’s very “Serge” – that restrained, bizarre, humorless affect that the SAs in the Lutens boutique supposedly adopt – it’s all there.  I want to laugh out loud at it.

OK.  Time for a REAL sniff.  Let’s put some on paper.

Shiseido White Rose Abstract.  My review in 4 words or less.

Sorry – this is a beautiful fragrance.  If the best whiskey ever was a rose, this would be it.  Kinda like Jack Daniels in rose-space.  Yes.  I want to go back in time to my Ph.D. party, where I had a fifth of Jack Black, and wear a black turtleneck, a pair of sleek, black, smooth-rimmed Chanel glasses that won’t be cool until 30 years later, and just REEK of this stuff.  My whole life would have been different.  I’d probably be some sort of horrible lefty academic with three divorces, a bunch of respectable papers, and I wouldn’t know shit.  But for one magic moment, I would have been in perfect sync with this amazing fragrance.

Damn.  I have a black turtleneck.  All I need now are the Chanel glasses, a shave, mom jeans and a dye job.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

I swear to G_d, I need a character who wears this fragrance.  Even Joey Waters cannot wear this stuff.  He has a Chanel poster in his studio, and the model wearing the glasses looks like the guy who wears this fragrance.  Snake walks in, and is always in awe of the “Chanel dude”, and wonders which Chanel fragrance the guy is wearing.  It’s Égoïste, but when he’s not on the job, he wears Nombre Noir.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

OK.  Back to reality.  Sorta. The Égoïste reference was not for naught – this stuff actually bears a certain similarity.  Imagine taking “Bois Noir“, as it were, and removing the woody crutch needed to make Égoïste a guy frag.  Now – as you do that, the ornate rose starts coming back, and the “Noir” starts to fade, but somehow keep it there, until the guy who’s wearing it becomes painfully cool, because he doesn’t care that there is only a small bit of what is needed to keep all the girls guessing whether he’s wearing one of their scents, probably poached from the vanity of some lucky lady who traded her reputation for a night with the guy.  Égoïste, not on steroids, but on some kind of androgynous miracle drug.

You know – I think I can back away from this scent enough to be clinical, and explain the Turin love.  This is a “guy wearable” rose, but it’s HOW it remains guy-wearable that is what is so amazing.  It sacrifices none of the greatness – the smoothness – the elegance.  But it still says “You can wear me, guy, if you have something about you that makes the Daniel Craig version of James Bond respect you, because THAT is what kind of scent I am.”

One of the secrets of this stuff, I am realizing, is that it uses the spicy/peppery trick that Le Labo Rose 31 uses, but at a much more subtle, almost imperceptible level.  The texture of the spice is so fine-grained, that it seems almost harmonic with the rose.  Just BRAVO.  I see this as somewhat analogous to the vetiver fascination in Portrait of a Lady, also one of the great fragrances of all time.  It is the judicious offsetting of rose with a textured sort of spice, wood, or similar stuff, that makes people say “Yeah.  That’s cool.  And a GUY can be cool, wearing it.

There is also a Platinum Égoïste thing going on.  If that one had been just a bit more rosey, and less of a fougère, it could have captured the high-pitched rose in this one.  Just sayin’.  I never really got WHY they named Platinum Égoïste Platinum Égoïste, but had they made Platinum Égoïste more obviously rosey, it would have made tons of sense.  Oh, man, this fragrance is inspirational.  How the fuck would I know how to correct a fragrance from the brilliant Jacques Polge, were it not that this mythical fragrance sitting in front of me had the answer?

OK.  I’m done here.  As Nombre Noir fades, it falls apart, ever so gently and ever so respectfully.  In its wake, it leaves that cool, fresh, smooth, mothball base note, like a soprano fading out.  The rose goes out on a high note, so to speak.  An intertwining mix of freshness and gamma ray rose.

Why they got rid of this – wow – who knows.  Does it matter?  But honestly, I think that somebody could make something like this again.  White Rose Natural has some essential element of this stuff, and that one is NOT gone.  Expensive, but not gone.  This could be done.

I leave you with a final thought.  Why I will never seek a real bottle of this stuff.































Additional References For Those Interested In Nombre Noir:  (see Chapter 1)

Appendix I – The Next-Day Drydown

And here you thought I would be cheap and try to get a second post out of the part where I actually have time to look at the entire development of the fragrance.  Never!  This entire review must remain in one place.  Some would argue, so that it’s easier to take out the trash, but still.  We shall not make you chase down the complete set.

The way this odd fragrance falls apart is by divergence into it’s light and dark halves.  Strange as hell.  The dark parts are there, but their integration with the bright, fresh, high-pitched stuff seems to vanish, leaving the parts more easily discernible.  It’s difficult to get a handle on the dark parts – to some extent due to olfactory fatigue.  After taking a break and coming back to sniff this, there is a dark fruitiness in the base that is very enjoyable, and presumably makes for the name, but perception of it is difficult and its presence tenuous.  It falls away at the drop of a hat.  There is also the omnipresent, bright freshness.  And, somewhere between them, an abstract, tonal floral accord that is the true greatness of this fragrance.

OK – now I’m really done here.  Enjoying the fact that my touristy long-sleeved T-shirt from Desert Rock Sports in Las Vegas is not a black turtleneck.  But those Chanel frames.  Damn, they look good.  Maybe I’ll work up a belch, just to be safe.

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