“Weird. Perplexing. Why this?!” That pretty much sums up my reaction to much of L’Haleine des Dieux, one of Serge Lutens‘ new luxury parfums in his Section d’Or Collection. Are you familiar with “The German Shepherd Head Tilt” when they’re trying to understand what you’re saying? That was me with L’Haleine des Dieux for the first three hours, not only in terms of trying to understand the notes I was smelling or where they could possibly come from, but also why such a concoction existed in the first place and how anyone could ask $600 for it.
Just as with Sidi Bel-Abbes, there isn’t a lot of information out there about L’Haleine des Dieux at this time. The name translates to “Breath of the Gods” or “Gods’ Breath.” Unfortunately, my mind keeps reading it as “Baleine des Dieux” or “Whale of the Gods,” which is rather ironic since I think the fragrance has a whale of a price but absolutely nothing godly about it. I assume Christopher Sheldrake made “The Whale,” but the only official statement about the scent is another oblique description that tells us little about the scent or its notes. On the plus side, Serge Lutens has upped his Oracle of Delphi, quasi-religious pronouncements to a whole two sentences this time around:
The minuscule white flower which is sometimes added to a bouquet of roses is called gypsophila. In the UK it also goes by the name of baby’s breath. The volume it creates is the volume I had in mind, a misty breath of my gods, but in actual fact, I am God, the Devil and a woman!
As always, one can only guess what’s in a Serge Lutens fragrance, but two early assessments for L’Haleine des Dieux uniformly mention cashmeran and amber. Well, cashmeran is definitely there but, in my opinion, guaiac is the primary note. As for the rest, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Perhaps caraway and coriander? Maybe. Who knows? I’m not even going to try to guess with this one.
L’Haleine des Dieux opens on my skin with a pale woodiness that smells exactly like bread and milled wheat grain that have been soaked in milk, then sprinkled with yeast, sugar, and caraway seeds. There is a strange spiciness lurking in the background, sour and musty, almost like coriander, but not quite. Technically, cumin and caraway are different things, even if the seeds look similar. Caraway is a relative of fennel or anise, and is often used as the “rye” in certain breads which is exactly how it comes across here. I can’t explain the “yeast” or “sourdough” notes, though, both of which are intertwined with the powerful “cream of wheat” breakfast cereal that dominates L’Haleine des Dieux for almost all of its first three hours.
L’Haleine des Dieux shifts a little after 15 minutes. The sense of actual, solid bread grows stronger, as does the impression of milled or ground grains, though there is no powderiness. L’Haleine des Dieux is too milky to permit that. Alongside the bread, the guaiac comes into focus and solidifies, wafting its subtle smokiness that so often resembles leaves burning in an autumnal bonfire. Thin threads of its smoke wrap around the cream of wheat, turning the scent fractionally drier, and cutting through a little of its sugared sweetness. The light veil of spices atop the wood medley is slowly transitioning to include a pinch of cumin now as well, though it’s never as strong as the caraway rye or the yeast. At the edges, a clean white musk appears for the first time, while the base takes on a new cedary undertone. It is not precisely as clear or distinct as cedar hamster bedding, but close.
So, to recap, we have: milky creamy of wheat breakfast cereal, rye sourdough bread, mustiness, yeast, guaiac wood, guaiac smokiness, cedar resembling hamster bedding, caraway, cumin, clean musk, and several spoonfuls of sugar. I can’t even begin to express the oddity of it all. To the extent that the scent gives a nod to breakfast treats, I suppose you could call L’Haleine des Dieux the woody, non-gourmand version of Serge Lutens’ Jeau de Peaux but, really, I have to say, I find it to be a baffling mix nonetheless.
It doesn’t help that most of the nuances I’ve described are primarily noticeable close up. From a distance, the scent in the air alternates almost entirely between rye sourdough bread and milky, lightly sweetened cream of wheat. Nothing else. Why would I want to spend $600 or something close to it to smell like bread or breakfast cereal? To put that sort of price tag on this sort of fragrance — with a straight face — takes some serious cojones on the part of Shiseido, if you ask me.
For the next few hours, there is virtually no change to L’Haleine des Dieux. The core bouquet is completely linear. Only the secondary or tertiary notes change, mostly in their prominence or order. For example, the minor guaiac smokiness ebbs and flows, fluctuating in its visibility. It’s the same story with the intertwined duo of white musk and the white sugar that portends to be “vanilla.” At the same time, the yeast, cumin, cedar shavings, and wooded mustiness do a ghostly dance, disappearing for short intervals only to pop up later in the background before the cycle repeats itself.
The most noticeable change occurs roughly 3.5 hours into L’Haleine des Dieux’s development when the scent takes on strong vanillic overtones. The problem is that this “vanilla” is pure white sugar mixed with a ton of clean, white musk. L’Haleine des Dieux is now virtually indistinguishable from Carner Barcelona‘s new Palo Santo, a guaiac fragrance that also smelt like heavily sweetened, sugary cream of wheat on my skin. The difference is that Palo Santo costs $130 for 50 ml, not roughly $600.
Thankfully, the similarity doesn’t endure. About 4.5 hours in, the cashmeran finally makes an appearance, muffling the cream of wheat, coating the guaiac woodiness, and slightly diluting the hideous saccharine sweetness. Cashmeran often smells and feels like a nebulously woody Shea butter or cream on my skin, and the same thing is true here to a large extent. (For those of you in America who are familiar with Bath & Body Works’ True Blue Spa Line, its Shea Cashmere products are precisely how cashmeran smells on my skin and to my nose.)
The cashmeran fundamentally changes L’Haleine des Dieux. It is now a mix of buttered guaiac cream, infused with quiet smokiness, wheat, clean musk, and fractionally less vanilla sugar. The wheat no longer smells like a breakfast product and has retreated to the sidelines. The flickers of caraway, rye sourdough, and yeast have essentially vanished, though muted, abstract, and indeterminate spiciness continues to pop up on rare occasion.
Soon after the cashmeran’s arrival, the notes start to blur, losing their clarity, and fusing together. Near the end of the 5th hour, L’Haleine des Dieux turns into a nondescript haze of guaiac-ish, cashmeran-ish, woody cream infused with vanilla sugariness and a sometimes sharp white musk. From the start of the 7th hour until its dying moments, it’s nothing more than sugared and woody creaminess infused with clean musk.
Like Sidi Bel-Abbes, L’Haleine des Dieux lasted a long time if you made an effort to detect it but, this time, the sillage and projection were both soft. I tested the fragrance twice, always using 3 smears equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle. It consistently opened with 2 to 2.5 inches of projection and about 3 inches of sillage. The latter grew to about 7 inches or half an arm’s length after 30 minutes. At the end of the 2nd hour and the start of the 3rd, the projection was 0.5 to 1 inch, at best, while the scent trail extended about 3-4 inches, though L’Haleine des Dieux did have a larger presence when I exerted myself or moved my arms. There was no sillage after 5 hours. L’Haleine des Dieux hovered just above the skin at the 4.5 hour mark, and then became a skin scent 5.25 hours into its development. Like Sidi Bel-Abbes, I thought it was going to die at the start of the 9th hour but it clung on tenaciously for 14.5 hours in total, though I had to put my nose right on my arm to detect it for most of that end period.
L’Haleine des Dieux’s very limited release up to this point means that there isn’t a lot of discussion about it for me to share with you, but I found a few descriptions. Fragrantica writer, Serguey Borisov, wrote an article for the site on three of the new Section d’Or releases. He describes L’Haleine des Dieux as follows:
This mild and delicate perfume with such a magnificent name shows obvious oriental character. Moderately sweet, resinous and ambery, slightly fruity and delicate, with tree needles and the leather, it gives a sense of cool gloves, that cover the arm to the elbow in the soft skin as if the leather been poured upon the arm… Here! Seems like that’s the feeling that Maestro wanted to transmit in the perfume! Gloves from venerable brand like Hermès, gloves of exceptional quality, made in a comfortable cut and some inconspicuous gloomy military color, not calling attention to themselves. Gloves for the owner’s self-awareness, not for show. A lot of money, disguised as an everyday thing.
It sounds like the creamy cashmeran dominated on his skin, but that was not the case for the two people who have left early reviews on L’Haleine des Dieux’s actual Fragrantica entry page. Their experiences closely resemble what I’ve described in the first 3 hours. “Meama” writes:
A hot and iced vanilla, camphorated / mentholated with notes of clove, anise and frankincense. It is as if we had been given to a newborn a pellet for throat just after suckling. The smell of a biscuit soaked in hot milk in the middle of the snow.
“Jeff with Frags” experienced something similar, but it also included a “muddled” vaguely anisic (or fennel seed) spice note that sounds analagous to the caraway I encountered:
First spray gave me a creamy, milky vibe. The slightest hint of sweetness, with some oddities, mixed and muddled I couldn’t identify. [¶] Seemed almost aniseedic, or cumin. [¶] Certainly no straight vanilla or honey here. No syrup or dried fruits, something to ‘lift’ the mix and add something a bit exciting.
Lutens, how do you create such disappointment? =/
How indeed? Given L’Haleine des Dieux’s simplicity, linearity, and materials, I think its price is even more of an issue than it would normally be. The 50 ml bottle costs a bit less than Sidi Bel-Abbes, but it’s still hugely expensive at €550, £480, and probably around $600 when it comes out in America. Nothing that appeared on my skin warrants those numbers, if you ask me. Cashmeran is hardly the most expensive ingredient in the world: a large 240 ml bottle costs $83 on The Perfumer’s Apprentice, but you’d only use or dilute 2% at a time, so that $83 would cover a lot of perfume. Guaiac costs even less at $15 for an 80 ml bottle. And those are the prices for individual purchase, not the much lower rate that a large perfume house would pay for a mass-scale order.
So, if there isn’t the complexity or opulence to trigger my “Roja Dove Rule,” what if L’Haleine des Dieux were part of the more affordably priced export line? Would I wear it if a bottle happened to drop into my lap for free? The answer is “No.” I like wheat notes in perfumery, but the combination of notes in the first three hours is simply too weird for me. Plus, I’d rather not smell like breakfast cereal as a general rule. Even when that part ends, there is still the problem of the middle stage with its saccharine sweetness. If I wanted to wear mounds of sugar over guaiac, I would have bought Palo Santo instead of cringing through it.
Bottom-line, even if you take its price out of the equation, L’Haleine des Dieux is a big disappointment. People who like “cozy comfort” sorts of fragrances may enjoy parts of it, particularly when the cashmeran appears, but I would be truly astonished if anyone considered it to be a Lutens masterpiece. Asking €550 or $600 for a small bottle of this is… well, it takes major cojones.