Don’t ask me where I got my decant… Let’s just say it was a friend of a friend, who swears this comes straight from the Palais Royal. Just a few drops, some of which were soaked up by a scent strip; the precious little that was left was sprayed on.
But straight off, one thing was obvious: El Attarine has violet. Lots. Cumin. A hefty dose. Sandalwood, definitely. And Atlas Cedar.
Does that ring a bell? To me, El Attarine clearly reprises the Bois series, with a cumin frieze and a sandalwood pedestal. Bois de Violette, say, wedged into Santal de Mysore, with a lashing of Fleurs d’Oranger. Sound like a weird cocktail? It’s not. It’s Serge, it’s strange, it’s beautiful…
With his 2008 fragrances, Serge Lutens seems to be, on the one hand, getting down to basics and on the other hand, summing up the essence of his style. Serge Noire, after all, bears his name, though in a wordplay on the material called serge; but more importantly, it’s his way of tackling the very first material in the history perfumery, incense. El Attarine is named after attar, the Arabic-by-way-of-Persian word for perfume (more specifically, today, a floral essence). Thus: the Arabic perfume, per se.
With the new Palais Royal exclusive, Serge Lutens seems to be revisiting his entire oeuvre, all 16 years of it, going back all the way to the matrix of the Bois series, Féminité du Bois, up to his recent experimentations in spices (Chypre Rouge, Rousse, Five O’Clock au Gingembre). Like an arrow shot through time, carrying swatches of everything it goes through.
Yet somehow his manner has changed. Of course, Serge Noire starts off with the trademark olfactory shock (a camphor-pepper-clove-cumin blast) we’ve come to expect of him. El Attarine doesn’t. There is a delicacy here, a tenderness of touch that somehow seems consistent with Lutens’ exploration of childhood reminiscences (Chypre Rouge, Louve) or earlier culinary discoveries (the overcome aversion to ginger in Five O’Clock). Not that El Attarine resembles those compositions: but somehow, something about them paved the way.
Even the announced immortelle, the kind of love-it-or-hate-it note that can clobber you with its curry-maple syrup smell (best experienced in the masterful Annick Goutal Sables or Dior Eau Noire) is only a subtle, licorice-like, burnt flavouring added to the blend. A honey note intensifies the violet’s metallic, woody sweetness; Helg from Perfume Shrine speaks of dried fruit, but I confess I didn’t catch much of them.
The press release speaks of a solar scent, and you could call it that: but this is sun filtered through the sculpted wood shutters of the mucharabieh. The overall effect is not as dense and saturated as other oriental offerings, like Chergui or Arabie. Difficult, almost human, sweaty notes like cumin and immortelle are treated with a stroke rather than a slap.
Limpid would be the wrong word; appeased, perhaps, is more suitable. There is an elegiac feeling to El Attarine. As though Serge Lutens, assisted by Christopher Sheldrake (who, though he now works for Chanel, has been allowed to pursue his collaboration), were gathering what he knows, what he’s done, before pushing on. But he is far from the idea of giving up perfumery, as was whispered last year, and we may expect to see more notes revisited: there are rumours that he would like to re-do an edgier, more Palais-Royal version of orange blossom, now that Fleurs d’Oranger is an export…
Myself, I’d love to see him tackle Osmanthus. And what would you like monsieur Lutens to turn his attention to? Word will be passed on to the Palais Royal…
Image: Description de l'Egypte, Courtyard of the Attarine Mosque, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.