L’Incendiaire is a walk through an olfactory hall of mirrors, echoing the scents of Serge Lutens‘ greatest hits from amongst his darkest orientals. Fille en Aiguilles leads the charge, followed by the notorious Serge Noire, while Feminité du Bois brings up the rear. It’s a smoldering pastiche of all of the signature Lutens notes: plummy, stewed fruits that are dusted with spices, lashed with incense, patchouli, and sticky balsamic resins, then nestled in a dark forest where cedar trees drip a brown sugar sap. A little fly made out of oud buzzes around them, though it is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. As time passes, the Lutens classics change their order in the troop formation, but the bottom line remains the same: L’Incendiaire feels like a mixed tape compilation of scents I’ve encountered before, only refined to a polished core. It’s very enjoyable, but I feel rather conflicted for reasons that I’ll get to later.
L’Incendiaire (“The Arsonist”) was created by Christopher Sheldrake and debuted about two weeks ago. It is notable as both the first pure parfum from Serge Lutens, as well as The Maestro’s first foray in oud. The extrait is part of a new prestige line called the Gold Label or Section d’Or Collection. (The regular export line has a cream label, while the Haute Concentration eau de parfums come with a black label.)
Earlier this year, Fragrantica posted the Lutens press release that explains why this collection is supposedly different from anything previously put out by the brand, as well as why it’s significantly more expensive than anything else in the line, including its bell-jars:
The launch of L’incendiaire marks the emergence of a new Serge Lutens collection, Section d’or, the brand’s most prestigious range yet. With bottles inspired by the original rectangular design and featuring the sharp angular lines so revered by Mr. Lutens, this exclusive collection is the brand’s ultimate creation. And when it comes to choosing ingredients, only the finest quality is used, no expense spared. Even the black and gold hues symbolize a breakaway from the classic collections. This is Serge Lutens at the culmination of his art.
L’Incendiaire has been released in very limited fashion, exclusive to certain department stores. In America, it is only available at Barney’s. In England, I believe Harrods may have the sole rights. I don’t even see the fragrance listed on any of Serge Lutens’ own websites, so there is no blurb that describes the fragrances in the usual oblique but poetic terms. The press release quoted by Fragrantica includes a long story, but it seems to be almost entirely about Serge Lutens himself rather than the fragrance. So, I’ll stick with the simple description for L’Incendiaire provided by Barney’s:
Sensual and opulent skin perfumery. Rare resins, saps, ambers and tarmac….
insanely elegant and deep.
Serge Lutens never provides the notes for his fragrances, so that summation is all we have. Some sites have said accurately noted that L’Incendiaire has oud. Surrender to Chance mentions it in their description for the scent as well, but they boil their list down to:
geranium, carnation, woods and incense.
Based upon what I smell, I would say that L’Incendiaire included:
Ginger, Cloves, Cumin, Plums and Stewed Fruits, Incense, Labdanum Amber, Cedar, Patchouli, Styrax Resin, Tolu Balsam, Oud, Brown Sugar Sap, and possibly a pinch of Birch Tar.
L’Incendiaire opens on my skin with a dark, smoky, sweet wave of stewed, purple plums cooked with ginger, incense, cloves, patchouli, and labdanum. The combination is flecked with slivers of cumin powder and oud, and sits atop a foundation of sticky, blackened resins. There may be a microscopic touch of birch tar in the base as well, because Serge Lutens‘ Boxeuses comes to mind, though nothing in L’Incendiaire feels leathery at all. The scent memory is a fleeting one, especially once that sliver of oud departs to the edges and the rest of the notes bloom.
It’s a bouquet that takes chunks of several of Serge Lutens’ other dark fragrances, and then sews them all together in one body. There is a walloping amount of one of my favorites, Fille en Aiguilles, combined with the better parts of Serge Noire, and a large cup of Feminité du Bois. I’d call it a Frankenstein scent, only this one is attractive and refines the various fragrances to eliminate some of their more unique (or tricky) aspects. For example, there is none of Fille en Aiguilles’ pine, forest, chilly notes. That part has been eliminated, but almost all the rest remains, from the Christmas ginger plums to the powerful incense smoke and the feeling of sticky resins mixed with brown sugar sap.
There are other refinements as well. For those who have been traumatized by the notorious Serge Noire, let me reassure you that L’Incendiaire has none of that fragrance’s sweaty funk, dirty earthiness, medicinal camphor, or icy cinnamon Red Hots. I think some of Serge Noire’s polarizing aspects are a result of the avalanche of cloves in conjunction with the patchouli. Here, in L’Incendiaire, both facets have been substantially reduced, by more than 50% I’d say.
What’s left is not only more balanced and carefully calibrated, but it’s been buffed out to a very polished version of each. The patchouli, in particular, feels rather sanitized and smells mainly of dry-ish, spicy woodiness. As for the cumin that I mentioned earlier, it is a light pinch that is almost imperceptible a lot of the times. There is absolutely none of the arm-pit sweatiness or funk that some people experience with Serge Noire. (Gosh, I make it sound awful, don’t I? It’s truly not that bad, though it is a notorious scent.) In fact, if it reassures the cumin-phobes, I’d say the note here feels even weaker than it is in the reformulated Feminité du Bois. Speaking of which, the latter fragrance is also present in this “greatest hits” mixed tape, most noticeably via the cedar and another helping of spiced, cooked plums. That said, Feminité du Bois is the least prominent of the three Lutens perfumes on my skin during the first four hours.
For much of the first hour, L’Incendiaire is centered on sugared ginger plums that have been cooked down into a demi-glacé with incense, patchouli, cloves, labdanum, smoky styrax resin and Tolu balsam, then dotted with tiny dabs of cumin, oud, and cedar. It takes less than 5 minutes for the labdanum amber to sink into the base, where it works indirectly to add to the rich darkness of L’Incendiaire but loses its individual character. The patchouli is destined to follow the same path, but, for now, it merely starts to overlap with the other notes. At the same time, the woods feel quite abstract, the cumin grows even weaker, and the styrax seems to give way to the Tolu (or Peru?) balsam. On the other hand, the ginger plums and the smokiness grow stronger. To boil it down to a nutshell, I feel as though I’m wearing 65% Fille en Aiguilles, 25% Serge Noire, 8% Feminité du Bois, and 2% oud.
As that breakdown makes clear, the oud is the most minor element of all on my skin. Its inclusion feels like a token nod to the big trend in perfumery over the last 10 years, and also makes L’Incendiaire the very first “oud” fragrance ever released by Serge Lutens. Yet, personally, I would never consider L’Incendiaire an oud-centric scent. For almost the entire duration of the perfume on my skin (and I’ve tested L’Incendiaire twice), the wood is nothing more than a ghostly nuance that pops up on the sidelines once in a blue moon. In fact, the cedar is much more prominent. I don’t know if real agarwood was used, but I do appreciate how it’s a clean, smooth aroma here, instead of something recreated by cypriol or resembling one of the Montale fragrances with its synthetic, pink-rubber band-aid tonalities.
Yet, honestly, I find its presence here rather baffling. Oncle Serge doesn’t follow trends; he’s never cared about oud; and if he is going to stick agarwood into something for the first time, why make it such an ephemeral, nebulous wisp? It feels like an after-thought, except that is not how Monsieur Lutens approaches perfume creation. Perhaps it was included to justify L’Incendiaire’s price, but that doesn’t really make any sense either. I suppose I’ll just have to chalk this one up to an issue of individual skin chemistry.
The other thing that perplexes me is that L’Incendiaire feels a lot flatter and more insubstantial than I had expected. The actual bouquet is rich, potent and concentrated in the first two hours, particularly up close, but it is soft in sillage and weight. I used 3 very large smears, equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, and the perfume opened with 3 inches of projection, at best, above my skin. After a mere 10 minutes, however, L’Incendiaire felt a little flat and seemed to lose some of its density, to the point where I was tempted to add a 4th really large smear across a portion of my arm. I ended up doing a 2nd test later on with that increased amount, and obtained 3-4 inches at the opening this time, but the perfume again seemed to lose some of its momentum after the first 30 minutes. For a fragrance with such dark, rich notes and such a strong opening bouquet, it doesn’t really feel like an extrait to me by regular standards. It may be one as compared to the Lutens eau de parfums, but L’Incendiaire is significantly thinner, weaker, and lighter than comparable concentrations from Roja Dove, SHL 777, Slumberhouse, Vero Profumo, or Bogue Profumo.
Less than 75 minutes into its development, all the notes overlap and L’Incendiaire turns into a haze. It’s really hard to tease out some of the individual elements. The patchouli and cloves have sunk into the base; the labdanum feels as though it’s disintegrated; the oud has become even more of a ghost; but the cedar has finally emerge more clearly. For the most part, L’Incendiaire is just sticky, ginger-covered stewed fruits with incense smoke, slightly singed cedar woods, and a touch of brown sugar sap, all resting on a darkly balsamic, resinous base flecked by patchouli and spices. There is no warm, ambered goldenness, only a scent that skews very treacly, purple-black in hue.
By and large, that is the sum total of L’Incendiaire for the next few hours. It continues to be a remix of Serge Lutens’ greatest hits to some degree or another. The only serious difference is that the order of songs changes. Roughly 2.5 hours into the perfume’s development, Feminité du Bois takes over as the lead accord, while Fille en Aiguilles brings up the rear. Serge Noire continues to be sandwiched in-between the two. The perfume is also very close to being a skin scent.
From this point forth, L’Incendiaire’s focus shifts away from the incense and ginger plum combination, and moves towards something much woodier in nature. At the same time, the patchouli-cloves duet seems stronger, while the cumin suddenly pops back up on the periphery. Now, in essence, the split feels like: 45% Feminité du Bois, 35% Serge Noire, and 20% Fille en Aiguilles. Over time, the gap widens, as FdB surges ahead even more. The notes are largely a blur by the middle of the 4th hour, and are centered on smoky, spicy, resinous sweetness swirling around within a cocoon of dark woods. L’Incendiaire remains that way until its final hour when it’s merely a smear of dark, spicy woodiness.
All in all, L’Incendiaire had good longevity, though I found it a little low for a pure parfum extrait. The fragrance lasted just under 9 hours with 4 large smears (roughly equal to 3 decent sprays from an actual bottle), and 8 hours with a slightly smaller quantity of 3 large smears (roughly equal to 2 good sprays). I actually fare a little better when I use a comparable amount of Fille en Aiguilles, which is only an Haute Concentration eau de parfum. L’Incendiaire’s concentrated bouquet may feels as though some of Fille en Aiguilles has been reduced down to a demi-glace, but that impression doesn’t span the entire duration of the fragrance on my skin. When taken as a whole, Fille en Aiguilles holds up better over the long run, both in terms of the clarity of its notes, its body, and its overall duration.
All of this would be nitpicking about minutiae and a bit insignificant except for one thing: L’Incendiaire’s price. It costs $600 or £380 for a mere 50 ml! Comparatively speaking, that is more expensive than fragrances in the same concentration and size from other super-luxury brands. For example, 50 ml of Roja Dove‘s Amber Extrait costs $385, while the same size for Danger, Fetish, Creation-E, Innuendo, and several others costs $480. By the same token, parfums from SHL 777 in the same size are priced at $220, $340, or $560 (with one glaring exception for O Hira at $825).
All of those fragrances feel richer, denser, heftier, and more powerful than the Lutens. And, uniformly, they all lasted significantly longer on my skin, too. So, L’Incendiaire’s price tag does make me blink, particularly given that you can buy Fille en Aiguilles (an Haute Concentration eau de parfum, remember) at a discount for about $80-$90 in that same 50 ml size. Even without a discount, its retail price is $150, while Serge Noire (another Haute Concentration scent) costs $140 and Feminité du Bois (a regular concentration EDP) is at $130.
So, yes, $600 seems high for a fragrance that is a greatest hits remix. What justifies it? The beautiful new packaging? Not for me. The use of expensive oud? On my skin, the proportions are infinitesimal. If L’Incendiaire had true heft, good projection and super longevity, $600 would still be very high but I could justify it better. In terms of longevity, spraying from a bottle (instead of dabbing/smearing) might increase things, but I don’t know if it would improve the weak sillage. In the most basic, simplistic terms, extraits are almost always softer than eau de parfums because they have less alcohol in the base, and that alcohol is part of what lets the notes bounce off of the skin. Even with the sillage, though, $600 might be worth it for someone who truly loved all three of the individual fragrances and wanted a more refined version of each mixed in one bottle. It’s going to be a very subjective, individual valuation that will depend on the person in question.
L’Incendiaire has received mixed reviews thus far. Take, for example, Colognoisseur‘s Mark Behnke who has previously lamented Serge Lutens’ shift over the last few years into light, wispy, clean scents. Mr. Behnke enjoyed the new L’Incendiaire, but he wasn’t bowled over by it. In a nutshell, the perfume was primarily a “smoky oud” on his skin, and one which played it all too safely at that. To him, it felt as though Serge Lutens were seeking to introduce oud to a new audience who was unfamiliar with the note and who therefore needed to be eased into it very gently, instead of creating an interesting oud for the current perfumista who knows the note all too well by now. He writes, in part:
Is a movement over when the last stalwarts capitulate and join the bandwagon? I found myself asking this a lot as I wore the new release from Serge Lutens, L’Incendiaire. Uncle Serge has steadfastly avoided jumping on the oud craze that almost every other niche line has happily embraced. I was eagerly looking to Serge Lutens return to the darker style of fragrance which has seemingly been replaced with perfumes pitched to a different market, which does not include me. […][¶]
I have written that I thought that many of the recent releases by Serge Lutens have felt like they have played it safe looking to appeal to one specific segment of the perfume wearing audience. Those have mostly been lighter bodied compositions and I have finally come to grips with the concept that I am not part of that audience. I am the audience that “rare resins, saps, ambers, and tarmac” sounds divine to. I had expectations of something a bit avant-garde from Messrs. Lutens and Sheldrake. I was surprised upon sniffing it and wearing it for a few days that L’Incendiaire is still playing it safe but at least this time I enjoyed the effort.
L’Incendiaire is a pretty simple perfume to describe in a few words; it is a smoky oud. Now it is a smoky oud as envisioned by M. Sheldrake which makes it good. It just feels like a throwback to some of the early oud perfumes from other luxury brands where the oud was there front and center and a few dancing partners were added. These perfumes were mostly ways of showing oud to a western audience. L’Incendiaire acts like it is introducing oud to an audience that is most likely overwhelmed by oud at this point. […][¶]
The bottom line is L’Incendiaire is an oud perfume that fully lives up to the Serge Lutens aesthetic. It just seems that other perfume houses got to this one first and did it as well or better.
For Persolaise, L’Incendiaire’s price was shocking in light of the overall market, and he was markedly unimpressed by the actual aroma. His review reads, in part, as follows:
Before anyone accuses me of being unjustifiably hysterical about [the price], yes, I realise that L’Incendiaire is an extrait, which means that, per millilitre, it falls within the same bracket as extraits from Guerlain, Chanel or Dior. And sure, I’m aware that we live in a world where prices rise rather than fall [….] But even so, £380 for a single bottle of scent (which cannot be purchased in a smaller, less expensive form and comes from a company that isn’t known for pushing exclusivity to silly extremes) is pretty shocking. That’s why I’m inclined to give free rein to my hysteria and view L’Incendiaire as something of a watershed.
I know I’ve cited this example before, but it bears repeating. If a small brand like Neela Vermeire Créations (which, unlike Lutens and its wealthy parent company, does not enjoy economies of scale) can afford to sell 50 ml of a gorgeous extrait for about £300 (and pour it into what I suspect is a much more expensive bottle) then, for want of a better term, somebody, somewhere is having a laugh. And it’s at our expense.
But what about the scent itself? […] I’m afraid L’Incendiaire didn’t set me on fire. It didn’t even turn me tepid. It is essentially a very dry, monochromatic wood scent, heavy on cedar and incense, with a faintly animalic base and a disappointing lack of any notable contrasts, except for the nondescript ‘light’ facet which seems to run across the top of its structure. It plays out like a diluted parody of Sheldrake/Lutens cliches. It’s not especially diffusive. It doesn’t smell particularly rich or complex. And I can’t say it’s terribly distinctive.
I like L’Incendiaire considerably more than Persolaise but, by and large, I agree with many of his sentiments, as well as those of Mark Behnke. It saddens me to do so. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I admire Serge Lutens, the person, to an enormous degree. I think he’s the last of an era of artistic geniuses, the Picasso of perfume but with talents that range across a whole spectrum of fields. I truly adore the man, right down to his tendency to be completely oblique and esoteric. It may often leave me blinking, but I find enormously endearing at this point. In the case of L’Incendiaire, I was thrilled to bits that he’d returned to the dark side and away from the hideous “fiberglass” and aldehydic metal shards of recent memory. (Memories that I have worked hard to eradicate from my mind, without much success. The mere mention of Laine de Verre and Vierge de Fer makes me wince.)
I wanted to love L’Incendiaire so much, and I really did enjoy the first two hours quite a bit, but there is no getting around its shakier aspects on a fundamental basis. As Persolaise said so well, L’Incendiaire is a version of past Lutens/Sheldrake creations whose aroma is not “especially diffusive,” “particularly rich” or “terribly distinctive.” Those flaws do not warrant $600 in my opinion. The very choice of such a price range (along with the inclusion of oud after all these years) makes me wonder if L’Incendiaire is being marketed towards the wealthy Middle Eastern market above all else.
Comments on Fragrantica reflect the exact same range of emotions expressed between the other bloggers and myself. It’s a mixed lot, in short. Five people have tried the scent thus far, and two of them found similarities to past Lutens fragrances. One commentator shares my view that L’Incendiaire is like a “greatest hits” version all in one bottle, but feels that is a positive which makes the perfume’s high price worth contemplating. “High Maintenance” writes, in full:
L’incendiaire has Serge Lutens written all over it and sums up his best orientals in one – pure perfume concentration according to Barneys: the fruity plum of Feminite, the leather and cognac plum of Boxeuses, the incense of Fille en aiguilles, the burnt charred wood of Jeux de peau, the resinous facets of La Myrrhe…all of these notes in L’incendiaire are rendered deeper, more profound, radiant, subdued and polished, the scent exudes the most magnificent, voluptuous and vibrant sillage on the skin, irresistible for its incandescence and sheer magnetism. [¶] My favorite stage of the fragrance is the drydown when a few hours later I keep getting whiffs of the most sensual “purple” smell.
I’d like to address this whole $600 pricetag controversy by the Perfume online community…would I spend as much on Guerlain Muguet? I don’t think so. Would I spend as much on Amouage Homage, definitely not. Would I spend $2,000+ on Clive Christian’s No.1? Not in a million years! [¶] Would I rather own a few Serge Lutens bottles or just this one pure parfum…it’s debatable. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
Two posters experienced quite an oud scent. For one, L’Incendiaire and its price were a joke because the perfume was merely a “boring oud.” For another reviewer, however, the often astute “Deadidol,” L’Incendiaire was a more refined, “primped” version of Serge Noire but with an Amouage character and a Liberace-like ostentatiousness. He writes that the charred woods made the fragrance more “avant-garde” than he’d expected from Serge Lutens, but, for the most part, though, he wasn’t blown away by L’Incendiaire and found the new trend in perfumery towards “uber-exclusive pricing” to be “insane.” His very thoughtful analysis is too long for me to quote in full but portions of it read, in part, as follows:
Style-wise, it’s in a comparable camp to Serge Noire—largely due to the smokiness. But where Serge Noire is a tad unkempt in its phenolic camphor, L’Incendiaire is primped and groomed with rigor. […] what stands out is the mention of “tarmac”—a fantasy accord (I hope) that one might ordinarily picture as being more up CdG’s urban alley—but it certainly comes through in this perfume in an evocative way.
Upon application the scent smells charred and a bit rubbery; an array of charcoal greys and deep brown oils against a textured canvas. There are various woods present alongside an oud that’s neither western nagarmotha nor eastern cheese. There’s an incidental chocolate and some delicate musks that I’d place in the ambrette family. […] But what guides the scent primarily is the scorched effect that sits somewhere between smoldering wood and fire at the tire yard. It’s all folded together in a busy yet relatively civilized blend, sitting close to the skin for a good few hours, getting mossier as it goes. If I were forced to give an ultra-reductive description, I’d go with exotic wood, sprinkled with chocolate, singed by a blowtorch.
What’s puzzling to me, though, is that the scent feels more like something Amouage might have released prior to their recent westernization. […] Furthermore, the charred effect spins it a bit more avant-garde than we might expect from Lutens. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice enough, but it feels like a bit of a vulgar attempt to appeal to specific audiences rather than creating an object of beauty unto itself. It’s well-rendered and structurally sound, but the level of polish sends it skidding a bit too close to the Liberace-opulence of its high-ticket brethren[….] While there’s a lot to like about L’Incendiaire, it does feel a tad ostentatious [….] While it’s certainly not on the same level as some of the bell jars, it has its charms. But does it warrant $12 per ml? For me, absolutely not. But for someone else, it just might be the perfect Lutens.
My experience obviously differs from his, particularly with regard to the Amouage and oud issues. In addition, he seems to have experienced a much greater degree of smokiness on his skin whereas, on mine, it was basically at the same level as Fille en Aiguilles. (Maybe Fille en Aiguilles is just super smoky on me?) Nevertheless, I agree that part of L’Incendiaire feels like a very refined, polished, cleaned-up version of Serge Noire, and that the perfume has its definite charms. Not enough so for either of us to buy a bottle at $600, but perhaps enough for someone else.
In short, if you are a die-hard Lutens fan who has enjoyed any of the oriental classics mentioned here, you should give L’Incendiaire a test sniff for yourself. At the very least, you may find it interesting to see how Uncle Serge treats oud for the first time. On the other hand, if you don’t like smoky or dark fragrances, then I’d skip this one entirely. It won’t be for you, and the samples aren’t exactly cheap. Consider it money saved.