I had wondered if this day might one day happen. Whether I would, in my ever-thrilling voyage into perfume, discarded by the Japanese as worthless flotsam in the bargain bins of flea markets, ever come across one of perfumery’s truly coveted holy grails: Shiseido’s Nombre Noir. A perfume so rare it has become legendary among scent lovers, long discontinued (and all remaining stock apparently destroyed with bulldozers), there are very few bottles left available in the world, now, the ones that do exist usually going for mind-boggling prices (around a thousand dollars seems to be the standard). It is a perfume that has been enraptured over, exaggerated, mythologized to the point that its very name for many of us has an almost talismanic energy. A black, pulsing, Japanese jewel. An amulet.
As well as the usual flea markets and antique shops I frequent, I have recently discovered a place in Tokyo, whose proprietor, an Indian man I can’t quite fathom, lets me buy things at often absurdly cheap prices. He says he is always open but never is, but still lets me know when the latest cardboard boxes will be arriving in advance so I can get first pick (then call him up, and one of his assistants might then let me in even if the shop is officially closed); a shambolic jumble of shabby old makeup, shower gels, half used perfumes and then, occasionally, something beautiful like Jardins De Bagatelle or Infini, boxed, new, ready for my eager hands to take over to the cash register and pay.
On this occasion he had told me that there would be a delivery on January 3Ist, and so there I was, catching the train up from Kitakamakura, wondering expectantly what there might be. We were rummaging around in the box in tandem, where I got some half-used Givenchy Gentleman and Kouros, some Indian ‘essential oils’, and a couple of other things, when for some reason I looked down towards the floor for some reason and found that I had to adjust my eyes.
Can it be?
Duncan, don’t say anything or make a reaction of any kind but look directly beneath me. That, there, is one of the rarest perfumes in the world.
I have never smelled it. Oh. My. God. Oh my god it’s Nombre Noir. I can’t believe it.
Out on the street, practically gagging with excitement I had to smell it immediately, opening the box (as you can see, this would have been some kind of special deluxe set with an eau de parfum or toilette and parfum extrait presented together), and although it would have been an absolute coup to have had them both, something in me strangely quite liked the fact that there was this mysterious lack, this voided indentation. The black, satin shadow. It added depth and secrecy, a story. A luxurious vortex of usage. Where was that other bottle? Who had it? What did she, or he, look like? Could it still be lingering somewhere in the refrains of some tucked away, Tokyo apartment?
I still had the parfum, though. The grand prize. And I couldn’t believe it. Unused, it would seem; solid in its black sculptured glass. Precious. And although part of me hesitated momentarily (should you really be violating this prized collector’s item?) I just absolutely had to find out what the fuss was all about.
We stood in the wintery sunshine and I opened up the bottle…..
The fragrance was, and still is, a radical surprise. A perfume, like the timbre of a voice, can say something quite independent of the words actually spoken. What Nombre Noir said, was ‘flower.’ But the way it said it was an epiphany. The flower at the core of Nombre Noir was halfway between a rose and a violet, but without a trace of the sweetness of either, set instead against an austere, almost saintly background of cigar-box cedar notes. At the same time, it wasn’t dry, and seemed to be glistening with a liquid freshness that made its deep colours glow like a stained glass window. The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated, and faintly capricious. There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette’s writing style in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with, and that wonderful French word farouche, which can mean either shy or fierce or a bit of both.
Christos, Memory of Scent :
There is this rare, elusive category of perfumes, the Perfect, Discontinued scent. It is the most sought after, exclusive, masterfully blended kind of perfume. It was so perfect that it had to stop existing. Its ingredients so pure and rare that they are no longer available. Every now and then a bottle appears here and there and everybody is either spending four digit prices or fantasizing about it. The lucky few that have smelt the Discontinued masterpiece are witnesses of its perfection: nothing available now comes near. Of course the Great Discontinued is nothing more than a metaphor for youth and nostalgia: what is now discontinued was once commercially available and what is now available will at some point become vintage. Somehow the present is never as good as the past sounds. A place revisited is never as good as the first time. Past youth seems so careless when looked at over once shoulder. It seems that turning the head 180 degrees towards the past forces the eyes to squint just enough to make everything look a little more appealing. The myth of perfection never seen and yet as real as our hopes is as old as the Unicorn. As much as I like to think of myself as someone evolved enough to see the unavailable for what it really is (non-existent) Ι have many times drooled over the essence of Unicorn and fantasized about a bargain bid.
Nombre Noir is my Unicorn. Serge Lutens’s ability to guide a perfumer in capturing the essence of a dream in a bottle and Shiseido’s aesthetics were a match made in heaven and Feminite Du Bois is a testament to this. Imagine this combination accompanied by the ultimate perfumery legend: a scent so rich in fragile damascones that it starts dying the moment one opens the bottle. A composition so rich in top quality osmanthus extract that it wasn’t worth selling. And a packaging so mysterious and intricate that added to the exorbitant cost of the product. Legend has it that a Unicorn can only be lured into the trap by a virgin. I was a lot luckier. A woman in black brought this Unicorn to me. Amazed at the generosity of my perfume friend I received a generous decant of the rare essence and this is my encounter with it.
Nombre Noir is not a dark fragrance. It is a luminous and abstract scent. It opens with a very strong and abstract aldehyde accord that seems to hold captive a rose in its heart. The combination of intensity and light brings to mind a marble sculpture. Although it is bright and almost translucent it has a volume and weight that are disproportionate to the impression it creates. Although it looks light enough to lift like a feather it is in reality unmovable. I have never encountered this combination of lightness and strength in another perfume. From a distance it smells velvety but up close it has a peppery sting. The rose itself is an over-ripe red bloom with its petals wide open exposing sweet and powdery golden anthers. What is more vivid in this rose is not the photorealism of the rose scent itself but the reality of the velvety texture of its petals. It is not sweet but it has a mature fruitiness, a fuzzy, sticky abstract fruitiness. As time passes the red rose becomes paler and whiter. Softer and younger. Underneath the topnotes there is this exquisite, old-fashioned heart of iris, vetiver and greenness that supports the top and lifts it like a balloon. I thank the gods of marketing dynamics that made this accord, which was so typically feminine a few decades ago, so undesirable to modern female perfume buyers that it has lost all its past associations with this gender. Having lost its collective memory load it is now reinvented and perfectly suitable for men. The heart of Nombre Noir has a lot in common with Chanel No I9 and Jacomo Silences but with a completely counter-intuitive brightness. In the drydown the abtract rose is still there but now it is fresh, pale and coupled with a delicate suede note.
Nombre Noir has nothing to do with darkness. It is all about regeneration. Watching its development is like watching a slow motion video of a bud blooming and dying, but in reverse. Maturity is followed by youth, freshness and potential. This is not a beautifully done rose dominant fragrance because everything about this flower is abstract. More important than the flower itself are the fuzz on the petals, the dewdrops, the dust.
ELENA VOSNAKI: PERFUME SHRINE
Have you ever lost sleep over the notion of an unattainable ideal? Have you longed and ached for that which you have not even experienced? Are you like the hero in Steppenwolf , a lone soul in search of the sublime revelation of self in the whirlwind of a crumbling civilization? Those questions might ring silly to someone who hasn’t known the pang of desire that a beautiful perfume stirs in the soul. And Nombre Noir is one such beautiful but unattainable perfume.
In a revelation of Lachesis I happened upon a little stash of it out of the blue; the elusive Kooh-i-Noor that had been escaping me for long. Or so I thought. Years passed since the last batch of this black glove has been produced and I wonder how much of its initial beauty has been smeared like mascara after a hard night partying. I will probably never know. What I do know is that it was immediately and unknownigly admired by my discerning companion who proclaimed it “beautiful and haunting”. It is just my luck that he always loves the rare and expensive things, I guess. For what is worth I will cherish the little I do have and not break my neck in vain.
Nombre Noir was created in 1981 by nose Jean-Yves Leroy, one of the in-house perfumers for the Japanese brand Shiseido, under the artistic direction of Serge Lutens and Yusui Kumai, aiming to create their first “western” fragrance. Lutens chose an extremely expensive natural osmanthus and a synthetic aromachemical, a big-stock damascone molecule of rosy-woody with prune. In The Emperor of Scent, Turin called it “one of the five great perfumes of the world” and lamented its passing, creating a stampede on Ebay for the elusive golden juice of olfactory paradise.
The perfume became infamous for its breakthrough packaging designed in collaboration among Serge Lutens, Shuichi Ikeda and Masataka Matsubara. “The most unremittingly, sleekly, maniacally luxurious packaging you can imagine: a black octagonal glass Chinese bottle nestled in exquisitely folded black origami of the most sensuous standard.”
Despite its high retail price, however, Nombre Noir was losing money because of the packaging, according to rumours. And then it disappeared, to be lamentably discontinued shortly thereafter. The real reason seems to be because the high percentage of damascones contained contributed to the perfume being photo-sensitising.
Damascones are potent aromacemicals synthesized in the lab through a difficult procedure that is reflected in their price. Because of that and their diffusive odour profile they are usually used with restraint, except for cases when the perfumer wants to make a point, like in Poison with its exaggeration of alpha and beta damascone or indeed in Nombre Noir. Alpha-damascone is rosy floral with a fruity aspect atop a camphorous note and winey nuances while beta-damascone has tobacco shades along with plummy sweetness.
Alas their deterioration upon sunlight is another reason they are usually kept in minute quantities in perfume compositions. Except for Nombre Noir. And that was the death toll on it.
The furore started with Turin’s quote and perfume lovers the world over were losing precious sleep over not having experienced this ingenious marvel of nature and lab mechanics. Everyone who followed the perfume community had heard about it but they thought it exiled in distant Peoria.
To me the fragrance of Nombre Noir is akin to a sonorous sonata that is echoed across a vast hall full of oxidised-metal (so as to look dark) chandeliers. There is the high ceiling of cedary notes, like those in Feminite du Bois but scaled a bit down, that keeps the atmosphere somber, yet the plush of the velvet cushions and the brocade curtains lend a baroque fruitiness to the proceedings, like dried raisins and prunes left out for all to savour, not unlike the hyperbole that is Poison by Dior. The sublime rose accord is laced with a boozy and tea-smokey note, restrained and not old fashioned at all, recalling to mind the unusual treatment that was destined to it in the exclusive Lutens scent Rose de Nuit. I can see how this could be worn like nocturnal ammunition against the crassness of a crumbling civilization.
Trailing Duncan down the streets of Ginza as he wore this scent for the first time for me, so I could experience it from afar and from different angles, I had to ask myself honestly, and as objectively as possible, if the perfume lived up to this adoring reputation. Was it as unique and divinely beautful as people had said? Would you, the people reading this, be missing out on an essential and integral experience of la vie parfumée if you had never smelled it?
I think the answer might be a tentative no. While beautiful and compelling (both of us did really like it right away), it is also quite familiar. This is not a perfume that just appeared out of nowhere, from the cavernous gloom of Serge Lutens’ heart, but was part of that early nineteen eighties trend of gothic/new romantic roses; chypric and gallantly glamorous new scents that marked the end of the seventies with a new taste for urban excess; the sound of Roxy Music’s Dance Away and Avalon, the sharply tailored creations of Yves Saint Laurent at the peak of his powers: fashion, and perfume, as costume. If you are familiar with Sinan, or Knowing by Estée Lauder, then you will have a rough idea of the ‘electric rose’ family of perfumes that Nombre Noir falls into, but in truth I would say that it is more a continuum of themes that were explored in Shiseido’s exquisite Inouï (which I prefer), the richness of Féminité Du Bois, and it is quite obviously also the prototype for Lutens’ later Rose De Nuit.
Nombre Noir is, undoubtedly, a very opulent and gorgeous rose. A power perfume. Glowering, concentrated, and smouldering in its deep wooden essences, smooth, with a high quality osmanthus absolute in the oiled and unctuous top notes that puts me in mind, for a moment, of vintage Patou I000 parfum. But where I000 is all elegant poise and almost overstated refinement, very French, very Parisian, I do find that Nombre Noir is somehow very definitely Japanese; very Tokyo in the middle of the burgeoning bubble economy, the time when it was released; I see rich women in the latest sharp-shouldered fashions; heavily made-up Japanese Grace Joneses channelling Shiseido’s angular, almost kabuki maquillage: business lunches; chic, expensive bars in the heart of Shinjuku; long, and thickly enamelled nails (the perfume is dispensed onto the skin like a brush for vernis à ongles, a pinpointed nail applicator, and this feels apt; the scent goes on almost like paint, like an ointment; a nuclear fissioned dot of scent that will bloom like a viper on the pulsepoints and whisper its sexual, state of the art story): ‘the bridge between west and east’: the message that perfume is here: the scent a rich, deep sanctuary of luxe and unspoken glamour.
Definitely unspoken, somehow: secrets locked inside a hard, lacquered black box: a passive-aggressive tension between silence and a dressed-to-kill clamouring for attention. Something watchful and guarded (despite its veneer of vermilion extroversion): a sense of brilliant containment.
So while I ultimately, after repeated testings of the perfume, don’t personally feel that Nombre Noir is as essential, or quite as exquisite as others seem to think, it is nevertheless one of, if not the very best, of its stylish and, ostentatiously era-specific kin. I can imagine some women smelling quite stunning in its grasp as they left their apartments at night for assignations in the depths of Tokyo’s labyrinthine, neon honeycombs: – a perfume like a shield or concealed weapon; an armour. As the rose blooms and reaches its strongest point, a beautifully dry and apricot-touched, resinously potent note of marjoram and coriander-laced cedarwood begins to grow, that lasts for hours, and becomes quite seriously hypnotic, drawing you in, shutting you out.
One last detail that I almost forgot: the price.
Five hundred yen.
Two pounds seventy.