“This can’t be right.”
This will, I guarantee you, be your first thought after your first whiff of Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens, a French photographer and artist who is mostly known for his niche perfume line. “Known” is subjective here. Lutens remains virtually unknown in the world of mainstream commercial fragrance, but has achieved a cult following that is unheard of for any other perfumer. His releases are greeted with great excitement, and sample decants and “swaps” with other fans are swiftly sought after a new release. If the perfume is really good, it will fly off the shelves before the non-fanatics ever knew it existed. I had to wait months to get my hands on a full bottle of La Fille de Berlin, thanks to a tip from my equally devoted sister.
Note that perfumes broadly fall into the following categories: orientals (spicy and amber-y), florals, fougères (ferns), gourmands (food-y), leathers, woods, and chypres (“mossy woods,” beloved of Chanel). Lutens made a name for himself with oriental accords, what many fans call “stewed fruits.” However, because he is impossible to pin down, his most memorable works cross genres–for example, Bois de Violette (literally “violet wood”).
That said, Lutens is not a perfumer in the strictest sense. Rather, he works with perfumers, most notably Christopher Sheldrake, who design and produce scents at his request and according to his vision. It’s safe to say Serge Lutens has some fairly weird visions. You can tell, because he writes his own ad copy. Where most perfumers would give some kind of description of the chief notes or most important ingredients, Lutens…does not. Here’s his description of a recent release, L’Orpheline:
“Fragile but whole. Its name hints at a break but before the fissures show, its first two syllable conjure Orpheus, a poet who could charm even stones.”
I began this post with some background on Lutens, his iconic status, and his overall weirdness to give some context for Tubereuse Criminelle, one of his greatest and most notorious creations. Greatest, because it is a technical masterpiece, with an orchestrated opening blast of notes that turn jaw-droopingly gorgeous in the dry-down. Notorious, because that opening blast tends to make people gag.
Tubereuse Criminelle opens with menthol and gasoline. You will spritz it on in all innocence, expecting to smell like a tuberose, and you will quickly understand where the “criminal” part comes in.
The diabolical genius of Tubereuse Criminelle is that it understands what tuberose is really about. Tuberose is a white floral, which is a genre of perfume consisting of–you guessed it–white flowers what smell nice. Tuberose, gardenia, jasmine, and magnolia are the usual suspects. Each of these flowers smells, on its own, heady and delicious.
And each has its own character. Gardenia, for example, is one of the most straightforwardly pretty scents on earth. Tuberose is different. It smells dirtier, more pungent than the rest. I have heard people with really sensitive noses say they pick up on blood, rubber, metal, even rotting meat.
As such, it’s the perfect scent for a weirdo like Serge, who decided a couple of years ago that he wanted to make a fragrance that smelled like bread, and then named it “Jeux de Peau”: skin games.
Before you write Lutens off as a hipster fever dream, it’s important to note that bizarre openings can be a mark of pride in the perfume game. A more “mainstream” perfume, Bulgari Black, opens with a burned-rubber accord and is packaged in a bottle that’s designed to look like a tire. Who ever said gasoline, burned rubber, and tires are sexy?
Of course, a raunchy opener better pay off into something good. A perfume is a gimmick if it relies on shock value. Tuberose Criminelle’s opening is indecent, but its dry-down is fantastic. Once the menthol and gasoline fade away (give it ten minutes), you’re left with a white floral of pure beauty. It is creamy, sexy, and cool. Instead of repelling mosquitoes, you will attract people who say, “I’m sorry to bother you, but what perfume are you wearing? It’s so pretty!” This is where my descriptors run out, because while it’s easy to describe the crazy opening, the dry-down just leaves me with a big dumb smile on my face. From top to bottom, Tubereuse Criminelle is interesting, and could only come from a man who thinks a perfume should have a personality.
By now, I have worn Tubereuse Criminelle so often, and for so many years, that I find the opening as compelling as the finish. It’s either Stockholm Syndrome or true love.
There are other tuberose perfumes. A good contrast is Beyond Love by By Kilian (yes, Kilian Hennessy named his perfume house “By Kilian” and I will never forgive him). Beyond Love is a straightforward tuberose soliflore, the closest you will come to finding the actual flower in bottle form. It’s lovely, of impeccable quality, about twice the price, and it cheerfully sings “Happy Birthday” while Tubereuse Criminelle is shattering the chandeliers in the opera house next door.
Tubereuse Criminelle is a crime against nature. Test it for yourself with a quick spritz on the wrist. You will wonder if you got a defective bottle, or if perfume can spoil, or if you are the victim of a cruel prank. You will regret your life choices. You should try it immediately.