THE OLDEST AND NEWEST LUTENS: NOMBRE NOIRE (1982) AND LA PROIE POUR L’OMBRE (2021) : : + VANILLA DIORAMA by CHRISTIAN DIOR (2021)

It has probably long been obvious to everyone else, but it only struck me for the first time the other day placing them side by side, that there is a perfect design cohesion and style continuity between the first and the most recent Serge Lutens. My bottle of the ultra rare and ultra coveted Nombre Noir, the legend that the maestro of maquillage created for Shiseido in 1982, is probably my most ridiculous bargain of all time (as in ridiculous: please read the story here). There isn’t much left now, as I used it all in one Christmas frenzy, but still enough for me to enjoy, once in a while, the plummy, damascene apricot glamour of its churlish, preening osmanthus.

The latest by Lutens, La Proie Pour L’Ombre, is of course from the Gratte Ciel, or skyscraper, collection, and the bottles look perfect together, though almost forty years apart. A vanilla amber, with incense/licorice and a hint of leather (this is not a leather, ultimately, no matter what you read, but an immortelle-laced, ambery, warm and sweet, luscious scent that brings to mind so many of the old Lutens like Ambre Sultan, the incense of Serge Noire, a hint of Arabie (the celery note is problematic here; D doesn’t like the beginning but likes how it evolves on my skin), the warmth of Cèdre; it went perfectly this weekend with a dot or two of the new Christian Dior Vanilla Diorama – another glinty vanilla amber that begins with a fresh spritzy opening that reminds me of a delicious dessert I once had at a French restaurant in Nagasaki that was infused with citruses and star anise, leading to a cacao-touched, sugar-crusted texture of marrons glacés and a light woody amber basis that prevents the scent from becoming too sweet or flayed open. I haven’t worn vanilla in a while; it has become a note I save for special occasions in case I feel it is eating me alive; but this one is not a vanilla bean monster: I would say it is more along the sleeker, less ice creamy lines of vertically structured cents such as Pure Distance Gold or Guerlain Tonka Impériale. While the name of the scent may raise a few eyebrows among perfume purists (what next? Chocolate Dioressence? – actually, that’s not a bad idea) – playing with classics from the Dior Heritage Archives and giving them a contemporary remix, the perfume itself is is a warm, lingering, and at first, slightly unassuming perfume that gets better as the day goes on, eventually lasting for a good twenty four hours on the skin. It was very enjoyable with the Lutens on Sunday, which I wore on my clothes and on my beard – some Dior on my wrists; the cooler weather a perfect backdrop for being wrapped up in rich, but strangely subtle, dreamy, autumnal amber.

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19 responses to “THE OLDEST AND NEWEST LUTENS: NOMBRE NOIRE (1982) AND LA PROIE POUR L’OMBRE (2021) : : + VANILLA DIORAMA by CHRISTIAN DIOR (2021)

  1. Tara C

    I have two minis of Nombre Noir I got on Ebay years ago for $12 each. Unreal. I never thought about the design similarity with the gratte-ciel bottles but now that you point it out it’s obvious.

    I am awaiting delivery of a bottle of Vanilla Diorama and very much looking forward to the new Lutens, it sounds right up my alley. Just in time for fall. Wish they weren’t so hideously overpriced, I usually wait for them to hit the discounters to buy, so I likely won’t get it until next fall.

    • They are both rather pleasing – the Lutens the more original of the two.

      Twelve dollars is amazing for Nombre Noir! I do think it has been oversold to us as the holy grail, but I do like it.

  2. Vanilla Diorama sounds like just the thing for a Autumn gourmand. I will put it on my list, do you think it is safe enough for a blind buy?

  3. Vanilla Diorama sounds intriguing! Like you, though, I wonder where this is all going. Cherry Diorissimo? Perish the thought!

  4. JulienFromDijon

    Serge Lutens keeps saying, that he’s only done the packaging for “Nombre noir”.
    From the interviews, I kind of remember that he arrived on the project, after the art directing for the fragrance was completed. But that’s odd, because Nombre noir’s fragrance feels so lutensy, retrospectively.

    I had a blind buy on a second-hand “La proie pour l’ombre” a few months ago.
    Because of the epidemic, the release was delayed, and half a dozen bottles allegedly given to influencers rebounded on the french site Vinted for around 120€. I was satisfied with my bargain buy. (And the black bottles are so rad. And refillable). I’m doing the same currently, to try and buy at bargain price some “confit” (so-called extract) and “toison d’or” (hair mist) release of Ambre sultan, Chergui, and hopefully La fille de berlin.

    I registered “La proie pour l’ombre” as a licorice perfume, with a backbone of Dior’s former “L’eau noire” (thyme and immortelle), but more cedar-y, and maybe with a touch of cocoa.
    It seems from the same ore vein than “La petite robe noire”, commercially, but you replace black cherry, rose and whatever for a hidden violet. I can’t pin it down, it’s velvety like violet leaf extract, and soft to the taste like I imagine mallow herbal tea would be. (The mallow in marshmallow. And in French, the mauve in guimauve). Still, this violet is only a cog in the composition, but it helps me to relate it to “Bois de violette”, the later leaning on rosewood to sparkle. “La proie pour l’ombre” feels substantial, yet soft and flattering. There was another licorice & thyme & immortelle perfume from Lutens, in “Bourreau des fleurs” from the “section d’or” line. I forgot it, then got a second-hand one a couple months ago. But I still haven’t done a fair try of it. It’s smells more of hazelnut and anice, and reminds me a lot of “Méchant loup” from Duchaufour for L’artisan parfumeur, the later being slightly less hefty. I had no big crush for perfumes in the section d’or line, but I preferred the later ones, Veilleur de nuit (for the cocoa) then Bourreau des fleurs. Most people gave up entirely on the section d’or on the first batch, justifiably so.

    • Interesting. The Section D’Or is simply beyond most people’s pay packets – certainly mine! – and I am not into hazelnut at all as a note.

      I agree that Proie is soft, flattering – it is not ‘outrageous’ in any way, but still a little weird – and I love how it lingers on clothes.

  5. JulienFromDijon

    “The Section D’Or is simply beyond most people’s pay packets”

    Indeed! And I was relieved to have no crush, when trying them, long after their release.
    Some perfume lovers acted unethically. Sour grapes got the best out of them. They trashed these creations before giving them a fair try. It’s a big no-no for me.
    Sometimes I see it as a twisted joke from Shiseido and uncle Serge, in order to give whining people a true reason to be ungrateful 😀 From my personal experience, people were already complaining when mainstream lutens where at 100€ for 50ml in mainstream store, and 125€ for 75ml in bell jars.

    Analyzing them is still rewarding, as a critique, once you have a sample and the mind for it.
    They make for a good riddle, for their complexity, their accord, and their use of natural ingredients.

    I made it a game to find the one I like for around 150€. Since then, I found them some redeeming qualities.
    From “Veilleur de nuit”, I like its cocoa absolute better than the one in Bornéo. The tuberose is there, muted, and with the true civet, it resurrects a side of vintage Joy.

    There is also an oudy effect.
    It borders on vetiver. I wonder if Lutens toyed with über-expensive oud for each of the section d’or perfume, even if the result is not worth it. (The rumor has it, that among expensive oud, you find completely different outcome, one from another. We are used to the fake ones. In “Al oudh”, we get the common Laotian cumin-y leathery one. In “Homage” from Amouage, you have the weird undulating one, that ranges between pencil shavings and white sandalwood, giving a suede effect. In “Tribute”, or Dusita “Oudh infini”, it smells of moldy leather seats and arse.)

    For all the rest, these perfumes fail.
    First, their value / price ratio is terrible. Second, they lack the density and readableness one expect for an extrait : a strong contrast, a real sillage, a main accord, and an evolution. Third, they remind glimpses of other Lutens compositions. And last, they don’t breathe happiness. They were hard to find and try, and you needed 5 full sprays on fabric so get a full-day evolution.

    But they are not “bad” on their own.
    They are more worth for their lack of default than for their shining qualities. One can still feel that Serge Lutens was given free rein (in the wrong direction). They don’t have the problematic ingredients of other perfumes. I did not detect woody-ambers, overt use of iso-e-super, ambroxan, and such. It gives them a smooth rendition that is also part of what I truly enjoy in La proie pour l’ombre.

    “I am not into hazelnut at all as a note.”
    Have you already tried kuki cha or yerba matte?
    The hazelnut effect is quite close to these green and rich notes, that are sort of dry and leafy, and a bit milky too.

    On the opposite, if you ask a French about the taste of hazelnut, he or she will think of Nutella.
    It’s a tasty paste for bread, make of sugar, palm oil, hazelnut, milk, cocoa, and vanilla. People binge it the same way as ice cream, to cope when feeling bad.

    • I was saying to Duncan the other day, praline is surely my favourite flavour on earth. Oh my god – hazelnuts, noisettes, in chocolate – it is Dionysian. I LOVE that more than anything. But in perfume it is just a horrible buttery fake synthetic note that doesn’t even come close to approximating the real thing.

      On the subject of chocolate, I also liked Veilleur De Nuit – that was the one I would have gone for, as well as that fruity floral rose, whose name now escapes me.

      • JulienFromDijon

        It must be “Cracheuse de flame” (female flame spitter) from Lutens’s “section d’or”. We have the same taste here : it was the last section d’or who sparked some interest in me too.

        I had to tell it apart from “L’incendiaire” (the arsonist). I’ve done some researches.

        I think that the 3 latest Cartier exclusive Rose perfume use the same rose quality, and are better than “Cracheuse de flamme”. Because “L’heure osée” and “Oud & pink” have the strength that she lacks.

        You spoke about them, while I bought back 3 15ml miniature. I was surprise as well to like a lot “V L’heure osée”, and even more surprise to love “Oud & pink”. (I was optimistic yet skeptical to read the same reaction from other reliable perfumelovers) (The oud line was quite dull so far. Fine, nicely done, but underpowered, underwhelming.)

        Here is my theory : there is ultra expensive white rose extract (Rosa alba), and it adds the bright pear facettes.

        This is what is likely to be hidden under “rose otto”, which is usually just a generic name for damascena rose essential oil. (otto coming from arabic and muslim indian “attar”)
        Public television “Arte” broadcast anew a reportage on rose extracts (with Thierry Wasser as guest). Production of roses is booming again in Bulgaria. To add even more luxurious propositions to their portfolio, some producers are growing back old varieties of roses, and the documentary showed Rosa alba white roses fields. (USSR standardised damascena roses as the only one used). Rosa alba is ungrateful, because it yields somewhat 6 time less rose oil for the same effort. (I’m unsure of the number, I quote it from memory). Rose oil is already a luxury product, and under “rose otto” some white rose is added to the mix and the price is increased. Among bulgarian rose producers, there is also a millage effect, so Guerlain already does a mix (une “communelle”) between different output.

        I’ve never smelled rosa alba rose oil alone, or any other extraction of it. But I think it’s that.
        Because, for Lutens, he said in written interview that this special “rose otto” made this “section d’or” two- or threefold more expensive that the other “section d’or”, originally. Only an effect of price balance could allowed this cost, a thing that existed in the previous bell jar, where a unified price hid big formula cost differences.
        Because, for Cartier, Mathilde Laurent already mislead people, saying “XI l’heure perdue” is made of only synthetical ingredients. And people had a reflex to undervalue it, while in reality it smells every bit rich and classical. And now she presents “L’heure rosée” as a “punk rose”, and everyone expect a form of trashy floral. Instead, they are greeted by the fluffiest rose ever. The banana peal effect and candy-like effect is so transparent, as if to not offset any signature effect of the expensive raw material. By punk, in this context, I think one must understand “plucky”, a manifesto of self-affirmation, and not “trashy white people” as in the collective unconscious. “Oud & pink”, despite the trashy name, is everything I wish “Knowing” extrait, and other 80’s dark rose chypre would be. The rose remains strong here, while in most perfumes she draws herself in abstraction very fast. That’s why I think that, this time, Mathilde Laurent made joke to hide a hyper expensive raw material under a cheap trashy depiction such as “punk rose”.
        Last but not least, “Ce soir ou jamais” in EDP from Annick Goutal. For all the quantity of roses with real rose extract in her line, it wouldn’t be surprising if rose oil providers gave her access to some rose alba extract, as a reward for her loyalty over the decades. She spent years on this conundrum that is such composition, and it was also her “swan dance”, her last creation before passing out from breast cancer. The pear is strong yet natural and intoxicating in this one (aim at the EDP), with a strange saliva smell given by the ambrette seeds, a sort of white rose french kiss.
        Also, pear facet in rose reminds me of the best with “Dolce vita”. It’s also a facette of cheap rose water, smelling a bit of apple juice and pear.

      • Rosetastic!

        I am glad you liked Oud Pink- there is something quite pleasing about it. And yes – it was Cracheuse! I would have bought and worn that if I could have afforded it. Thanks for all the rose info.

  6. Both of these sound interesting, on someone other than me. I am not too fond of liquorice in fragrances, nor in food, although I adore anise in both. As far as vanille goes, I have many glorious scents that are vanille rich, I don’t know what Dior would bring to the party that any others have not? Unless you truly think it is such a must-have that I need to own it. I do have many of the Dior Collection Privee fragrances and adore them, but they are from the initial releases.
    Do you know, I do not own Nombre Noire? I had a small sample someone gave me once, and it was nice enough, but I never thought it merited the amount sellers were asking for online. So I have never owned a bottle. Maybe one day. On ne sait jamais.

    • I agree that it has been massively overhyped, principally because of Luca Turin.

      The Proie Pour L’Ombre I am officially obsessed by, honestly. It doesn’t smell like licorice or of vanilla or leather, but a gorgeous amber – of the type we like – with coffee, incense and immortelle. I hate immortelle, with a passion, but somehow here it comes across in an interesting celery-maple way that doesn’t intrude: the end results are so good on me – I feel like I am wearing a Guerlain or something. In my opinion this is a real return to form for the Lutens house: unusual, but also mellow and very wearable.

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