The golden dunes and shifting sands of the Taklamakan are an appropriate setting for Stéphane Humbert Lucas‘ upcoming perfume by the same name. Taklamakan is the name of the world’s second largest shifting sand desert, composed primarily of large, striking sand dunes. It is also China’s largest desert, located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and a part of the ancient Silk Road trade route that helped to spread spices from China to Persia, Greece, Rome, and beyond. Spices, scorched sands, dryness, and golden warmth are very much a part of Taklamakan, the perfume, but there were other things that struck me about choice of a desert name.
One of the things I love in life is photography, of all kinds, be it landscape photography or high fashion editorials. But I’m particularly fond of nature photography that takes on a wholly abstract quality that emphasizes colours, shapes, movement, and fluidity. I can lose myself in such images for hours, falling into a sort of photographic or Pinterest black hole similar to the “Wikipedia black hole” that people joke about, as I follow one set of photos to another, entranced by their beauty and the escapist joy of indirectly “travelling” to far-flung, exotic places. A while back, I got lost in Pinterest boards called “Desert/Sands” and “Deserts & Dunes,” the latter focusing primarily on the different colours of the sand and the formations created by the wind. I was fascinated by the lines, structures, shapes, twisting and turning, shifting, moving, curving, weaving about — all in shades of gold, red, cream, ochre, burnt umber, terracotta, grey, brown….
Taklamakan, the perfume, has those exact same colours, movement, feel, visuals, and texture on my skin. It’s one of a mere handful of fragrances that, somehow, manages to evokes the textural feel of hot, dry sand and dust, which is rather a masterful feat if you ask me. In addition, it does so through notes that, for me, at least, visually replicate the colour schemes of so many gorgeous desert photos I’ve seen.
Deserts are rather uncomplicated things if you think about it, easily summarized as nothing more than sand that goes on for miles, and, on one level, Taklamakan is really a very simple, uncomplicated fragrance as well. Depending on occasion or test, its fundamental character on my skin can be boiled down to:
- a dry-sweet woody-vanilla laced with sugared caramel, spicy patchouli, amber, dust, sand, and smoke;
- a dry, sandy, spicy, ambered patchouli layered with sugary vanilla, caramel, nutty sweet myrrh, and smoky woods;
- a cinnamon-rose-vanilla-caramel-laced patchouli fragrance;
- a sugary, balsamic, oriental-gourmand hybrid centered on dry-sweet, smoky patchouli-infused woods;
- a dry-sweet, caramel amber infused with patchouli, cinnamon-scented resins, smoky woods, and incense… You get the idea.
A number of those descriptions (intentionally) overlap or are related, but, if you look closely, in actuality, the emphasis or focal point differs in each. That’s because Taklamakan is a kaleidoscopic fragrance on my skin, emphasizing different notes during different stages each time I wear it, even if the general gist — give or take a few things — remains largely the same. But something else happens as well. It’s not merely that the details of the scent unfolds differently from one time to the next; it’s also that the driving focus of the fragrance occasionally shifts on its axis completely, making it difficult for me to know how to classify the fragrance in its broadest brush strokes. But the bottom line is that Taklamakan feels, wears, and looks like a very simple, uncomplicated fragrance. But it isn’t….
What makes the perfume more interesting and prettier than its (deceptive) surface simplicity is the movement underneath. Like the desert, Taklamakan’s notes shift like the sands, weaving in and out: patchouli dunes growing out of dry, hot sands of vanilla and caramel, curving for miles towards the horizon, shot through with charred woods whose puffs of smoke are carried out by the desert wind, past trickling rivers of cinnamon-scented resins, as a sandstorm looms in the distance, engulfing a withered rose and turning it into a ghostly figure. When it passes, the sky is heavy with amber and red from spices, but dusk turns the landscape grey as incense-myrrh-vanilla takes over. Sandalwood stirs, but the night falls on a land of dunes made from patchouli-tonka, sweet and dry, cozy and warm, a passing, final breath of red, gold, cream, and brown.
Like the desert, Taklamakan can take some getting used to because it isn’t the easiest fragrance at first sniff, at least not for someone with my extremely low threshold for sweetness. In fact, the very first time I wore it, I physically recoiled from the titanic blast of sugariness in the perfume’s opening, and it took two wearings to acclimate myself to it. Yet, much to my surprise, I’ve ended up being smitten with Taklamakan and turned to it a few times as a “cozy, comfort scent” in the last month when I was sick. It grew on me in such a way that — immense sweetness notwithstanding — I actually want a bottle. (I know, I’m surprised as well.)
I’ve provided an overview, context, and general description for Taklamakan, but let’s get to the specifics now. It is a pure parfum or extrait in Stéphane Humbert Lucas’ 777 Collection (hereinafter referred to collectively as “SHL 777”), and it was supposed to be released in May. However, Monsieur Lucas just informed me that the launch has been delayed. Harrods will get the fragrance in about 3 weeks (so July), and everyone else in about six weeks (so, August). I normally try to avoid writing about fragrances that won’t launched for a while, but I had tested and written this review with the prior May release date in mind, so I apologise if I end up tempting you with something that isn’t immediately accessible.
There isn’t much information on Taklamakan at this time, but Fragrantica‘s Serguey Borisov interviewed Monsieur Lucas about it at Esxence earlier this year. His answers provide a lot of details, such as the inspiration for the scent (Monsieur Lucas’ feelings and state of mind following his divorce), and its core notes (vanilla and woods). What’s really important about that interview, though, is that Monsieur Lucas provides far more notes for the fragrance than what’s on the official list which — as a uniform rule when it comes to the SHL 777 fragrances — is always merely the most simplistic nutshell. In this case, the minimal basics he officially lists are:
Bergamot, Rose, Chinese Cedarwood, Sandalwood, Iris, Patchouli, Guaiac wood, Benzoin, Vanilla, Labdanum, Musk.
As always with SHL 777, that official list is incomplete. I detected a host of things which Monsieur Lucas later confirmed to me, from sweet myrrh (opoponax) to myrrh, ambergris, tonka, and more. Additional new elements were mentioned by Monsieur Lucas in his Borisov Fragrantica interview, like birch tar and cade wood oil, or the fact that he used Patchouli Coeur, a specific type of patchouli that has a dusty, clean, very woody profile instead of being green, camphorous, boozy, chocolate-y, tobacco-ish, dirty, or earthy. He used as much as 30 grams of it, a fact that is well reflected in the way Taklamakan behaves on my skin. That quantity stands in contrast to the amounts that he told me he used for some other notes: only a “few drops of rose, just for the impression, and bergamot, so little.” That’s because he intended for the rose to be a “ghost” (which, coincidentally enough, is literally how I described it in my notes), and for Taklamakan’s real focus to be on the dusty, dry, “black” and “peaty vanilla,” as well as the patchouli, the smoky woods, and the balsamic resins.
Taklamakan also has a strong, rich spiciness on my skin that always feels quite separate from either the cinnamon-scented benzoin resin or the patchouli, and that seems to stem from actual cinnamon. Monsieur Lucas said that he, too, experiences a lot of cinnamon on his skin, but that he didn’t actually use any. He said it’s the effect of the sweet myrrh, benzoin and labdanum combined together. However, it’s such a strong feature of Taklamakan (and, seemingly, an intentional one) that he explicitly mentions cinnamon in one part of the official text description: “A broken bone idea of peaty vanilla, old vanilla, vanilla excited by smoky notes enhancers, woody notes, a dip in musk and cinnamon prints […]’ (For the full official copy, you can read the end of the Fragrantica interview that I linked to earlier. The remainder of the text is more poetic and esoteric than informative, factual, or specific.) Given this prominence and official acknowledgement, one might as well put “cinnamon” on the note list as well, even if it’s placed in quotes the way Monsieur Lucas did in his correspondence with me.
The bottom-line is that Taklamakan’s real or actual note list, as confirmed by Monsieur Lucas, looks more like this:
Patchouli Coeur, Black Vanilla, Tonka Absolute, Bergamot, Rose, Birch Tar, Cade, Guaiac, Chinese Cedar, Myrrh, Sweet Myrrh, “Cinnamon,” Orris/Iris, Tolu Balsam, Labdanum amber, Ambreine, Ambergris, Benzoin resin, Sandalwood, and Musk.
Every time I’ve tried it, Taklamakan always opens on my skin as cream-gold sugared froth. That’s really the only way to describe it. Sugary vanilla is layered with caramel, spicy patchouli, and benzoin resin that is both cinnamon scented, slightly smoky, and slightly smoldering. The whole thing is then encased in a soft cloud of golden amber, and placed on a bed of hot sand. All around it lie small slivers of charred, singed woods, sending out puffs of smoke. Monsieur Lucas said that he used Chinese cedar which is extra smoky and dry, but guaiac and cade can be that way, too. On my skin, none of the woods in Taklamakan can be pulled out or easily identified beyond their general dry, charred character, but the mixed blend is a counterbalance to the immense sugariness of the first 30 minutes. (Not a very successful one, if you ask me. For someone like me, the opening minutes are very sweet.) The cumulative overall effect is a spicy, sweet, lush, but surprisingly dry oriental gourmandise that, really, truly, evokes hot, dry sand — if sand were made out of sugar, patchouli, caramel, and vanilla.
This is essentially the constant baseline for the opening bouquet, but Taklamakan is what I call a “prismatic” scent whose particular details vary from one wearing to the next, like a crystal chandelier throwing off colours and rays of light when the sun hits it. In one test, applying several, light smears amounting to 1 spray from an actual bottle, the level of sweetness felt practically oceanic at first, and made me think of other things besides the desert sands. First, a towering, spun sugar confection like a croquembouche, drizzled with caramel and enveloped in billowing clouds of cinnamon that almost smelt like Red Hot candies.
In this test, roughly 15-20 minutes into Taklamakan’s development, thoughts of a spun-sugar croquembouche changed to MFK‘s Ciel de Gum during its wonderful late middle and drydown phases. There were similarities, at least in this test, between the two scents that appeared as Taklamakan developed, thanks to the expanding, increasingly powerful waves of cinnamon-scented resins, vanilla, and amber. Here, there is, thankfully, no clean white musk in sight, but prominent amounts of spicy patchouli and smoky woods instead. Yet, the two fragrances are definitely neighboring planets in the same universe. Both are driven by heaping amounts of cinnamon-coated, caramelized sweetness and sticky, treacly, almost fiery resins. However, the difference is that Taklamakan is dry and sandy in a way that Ciel de Gum never was on my skin, in addition to being smokier and, I’d venture to say, even spicier. I think it’s noticeably sweeter as well, at least in Taklamakan’s first 20-30 minutes, thanks to a heightened emphasis on vanilla and that powerful, deep vein of caramel. Later on, it’s significantly woody in a way that, again, Ciel de Gum never was, so the two fragrances are hardly identical when taken as a whole. And, yet, Taklamakan has definite, strong, aesthetic, and balsamic kinship with the MFK in one of its stages, and that will be a positive thing for the many, many people who love Ciel de Gum.
Crème brulée, sugar-drenched vanillas are not my thing — at all — and, yet, despite that, something about this version of Taklamakan consistently drew me back, again and again, to sniff with some appreciation. The reason, I think, as best as I can figure it out, is the unexpected, strong, and almost tactile impression of the desert that develops after 20-30 minutes, that feel of scorched sandiness from which the charred remnants of blackened woods emit tendrils of smoke. The sand itself is made purely from grains of caramel and vanilla, but thick rivulets of dry, spicy patchouli are constantly oozing out, followed by black, balsamic resins (and American Red Hot candies). There are a few fragrances that manage to create that sense of desert sand (Micallef‘s Akowa and, to a much lesser extent, Parfumerie General‘s Djhenne), but this is the most ambered, balsamic, and the dryest.
Another test of Taklamakan yielded different impressions. The baseline was the same, but the prominence of various elements was different because, this time, the hot sands were made of primarily of patchouli laced with vanilla. The caramel was muted, while the woods were far more than mere slivers this time around. More importantly, the softest whisper of a dusty, withered rose echoed in the distant horizon, its voice almost a breath, its shape like a ghost that was enveloped and almost hidden from sight in a sand storm made from a lifetime of wood, vanilla, and patchouli ground down into dust.
This ghostly rose was followed by a second, even more muffled, shadowed figure, a suggestion of dry, lemony bergamot. Most of the time, it’s really an indeterminate sharpness that just barely — barely – suggests a sliver of dried lemon peel left at the bottom of a dusty, wooden barrel. This sense of dried, and occasionally sour, sharpness slowly intertwines itself around that withered rose, and then they just seem to fall into the patchouli. Sometimes, they’re so subsumed within it, that I wonder if the dried rose is merely a figment of my imagination but, sometimes, in two of my tests, it popped up and gave a more discernible wave, particularly when I was smelling Taklamakan on the scent trail in the air as opposed to close up.
Speaking of scent trails, Taklamakan is a bit of a paradox. Its core is like a glowing, red-gold-cream ball that is simultaneously both heavy and light in feel. The opening bouquet for much of the first 90 minutes is rather forceful up close with the main notes feeling heavy, both individually and cumulatively, but the general impression is also of frothy spun sugar and weightlessness. The scent itself is huge in reach. Once, when handling one of the small decants I was given, a mere drop or two (at most), of liquid got on my fingers without me noticing, and I was startled to suddenly find a large, dry-sweet cloud of woody vanillic froth swirling around me for almost an hour. When I applied a few smears equal to 2 sprays from an actual bottle, Taklamakan carried several feet, and left a scent trail behind me as I moved from room to room. In his Esxence Fragrantica interview, Monsieur Lucas said: “sillage is very important for me in every perfume, and I wanted to create the perfume with the long and durable sillage.” Well, trust me, mission accomplished, at least for the first 2.5 hours when Taklamakan is quite a monster before it settles down into something more on the big-to-moderate end of the scale.
Taklamakan is also a monster in terms of longevity which I’ll discuss in more detail later, but it’s significant to mention now because the effect of that immense life-span is that its various stages go on for quite a while and, as a result, the fragrance can seem almost linear at times. It’s not really, not when taken as a whole, but many of Taklamakan’s changes are so incremental at first that you don’t realize until hours later that the scent has completely changed direction. What is noticeable in the meantime, though, is the way the prominence and order of various core notes constantly shifts from one hour to the next, ebbing and flowing like the sands in the wind.
In half my tests, the patchouli led the charge on my skin during the first 6 hours, with the vanilla either following a few steps behind, or else fully fused together with it. The cinnamon became the third member of the trio after 3 hours, billowing out clouds of red over the landscape. The smoky cade and cedar bring up the rear, their tendrils of black smoke curling out and around the patchouli-vanilla. Once in a blue moon, a suggestion of leatheriness flits about, probably from the combination of the birch tar with the balsamic resins, and it’s lovely with the semi-gourmand, semi-dry vanilla-patchouli blend, particularly given the blanket of amber that covers everything. However, with a smaller application of scent, the sweet myrrh was far more prominent and distinct than the cade or the hint of leather, and its nutty, semi-dry, semi-honeyed, quietly incense-like, woodiness was even better with the patchouli, the cinnamon-scent resins, the dry “desert sands” vibe, and the increasingly strong ripples of chewy labdanum.
In the other half of my tests, it was the vanilla that took the lead, layered first with caramel and sugar, then with patchouli, before partnering with smoky woods from the 3rd hour onwards. I was fascinated by the transition from a frothy, sugar-spun, very gourmand accord into something significantly drier, woodier, and mostly oriental. By the time the 3rd hour rolled around, this version of Taklamakan was centered mostly on smoky vanilla, and what a great smoky vanilla it was, too. Slightly leathery, slightly resinous, fully singed, and with streaks of dry woods, patchouli, spice, and amber embedded within.
Almost all versions and tests of Taklamakan seem to converge in the later stages, following the same path. At the start of the 8th hour, the sandalwood and tonka slowly emerge, softening the other notes, coating the patchouli, amber, spiced resins, singed woods, and smoky, woody vanilla with creamy plushness, taming them, rounding out the edges, and putting a full stop to any lingering vestige of excess sweetness. At the same time, the myrrh and sweet myrrh begin to emerge on the sidelines, smelling wholly of incense this time around. Once in a blue moon, the sharp, withered, red rose flutters from within the patchouli, waving a hand “hello” for a moment before it sinks down and is swallowed up once more.
The whole thing turns my head with its mix of coziness, amber, smoke, sweetness, dryness, woods, and spice. By the middle of the 10th hour, I feel sheathed in red or terracotta silk that is sweet, creamy, nutty, spiced, and golden. The sweetness is utterly perfect, never too much, and always far more dry than anything else. The labdanum is cut with vanilla and tonka, or is that the patchouli? It’s hard to tell because each note ripples into the next, seamlessly, exceptionally smooth, to create a goldenness that is addictive and sexy. The only word that repeatedly came to mind, again and again, was “purring.” A purring oriental centered on golden plushness.
In two of my tests, Taklamakan took a brief foray into other territory at the end of the 12th hour. Essentially, the patchouli steps back to let some other notes shine, and Taklamakan changes into an incense-vanilla combination for a few hours. The sweet myrrh, patchouli, labdanum, and quietly smoky woods remain, but they lie on the edges, watching as the myrrh swirls around, turning the vanilla grey-gold and faintly dusty. It’s still dry, sweet, smoky, spicy, and woody, but it’s primarily incense-driven now in a way that is quite lovely, even if it only lasts a few hours.
On my skin, the patchouli dominates all versions of the final drydown which typically begins about 14 or 15 hours into the perfume’s development. Taklamakan is a simple blur of tonka-laced patchouli, nebulously infused with other notes. Basically, it smells like creamy, dry, sweet, ambered, woody spiciness covered by the sheerest veil of somewhat woody, somewhat sweet dustiness. Taklamakan remains this way for hours, coating the skin and hanging on tenaciously until it finally dies away as a sliver of dry, spicy sweetness.
Taklamakan has monster longevity to go along with its initially monster sillage. The fragrance consistently lasted over 20 hours on my skin with several smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle. In one test, it was 22 hours; in another 25, with one tiny, miniscule sliver of my arm chugging on for a few hours more. When I tested Taklamakan with a lesser amount equal to 1 spray, my longevity numbers consistently hit a minimum of 17 hours, with one wearing lasting 21 hours.
Typically, the projection is average, and the sillage does lose its mighty reach over time. With the equivalent of 2 sprays from a bottle, Taklamakan generally opens with about 4 inches of projection that drops to about 2 inches after 2.5 hours, which is also when the sillage lessens from several feet to about 6-8 inches. Everything becomes soft at the end of six hours; the projection hovers a half inch just above the skin, and the sillage is close to the body. Taklamakan typically becomes a skin scent about 8.25 to 8.5 hours into its development, but it remains easy to detect up close without any effort until roughly the 13th hour. At that point, it’s discreet, a silk coating on the skin, although I didn’t have problems picking it up when I put my nose on my arm. It’s absolutely there, no doubt, and stays that way for eons.
I should also mention that Taklamakan is one rich, persistent scent on clothing, even when you’re not spraying it on directly and it only seeps on through unintentional transference. The sleeve of my cardigan picked up the scent from one test two weeks ago, and it still remains strong, smelling so lovely that I find myself sniffing it nonstop. And, I must say, absolutely no-one smells better in Taklamakan than The Hairy German. After hugging him one night several days ago, he remains an absolutely glorious mix of fur, musk, spices, patchouli, vanilla, smoky woods, and chewy amber. He is the best and most expensive-smelling Teutonic Overlord in the entire state, I am certain of it.
Taklamakan hasn’t been released yet, so there are only a few detailed descriptions of it for me to share with you as a comparative analysis. One is the aforementioned Sergey Borisov who left a review on the perfume’s Fragrantica entry page under his regular posting name of “Q80.” For him, Taklamakan bore some faint similarities to SHL 777’s Qom Chilom, perhaps because of the dry, dusty, almost ashy quality in both scents, but he adds:
it has much less cherries and more of sharp roses to presents the dark blotted clotted blood with the help of Guaiac Wood. I can smell the musc that gives the dirty death note in an amazing way and some sandalwood, iris, and a slight vanilla to give the silence of the desert although it should be sandy instead but it’s not in this juice. I even can smell Stephane’s main note which is almonds. I can even smell citrusy patchouli.
This is a not love at first sniff but tolerable over time AND it might go to your favorites shelve if you like sharp roses and the scene it describes.
It’s interesting how much rose he seems to have experienced. Obviously, skin chemistry plays a major role in things, so you should keep that if you’re turned off by the thought of “sharp roses.” Monsieur Lucas said Taklamakan only has a drop or two of rose in the blend, but 30 grams of patchouli. Perhaps the frequency with which rose is paired with patchouli is responsible for the association, or perhaps it’s merely skin chemistry.
Roses never once came up for the only person to try Taklamakan and to talk about it on Basenotes. “Fly777” wrote a small, brief description in Comment #8 of a Basenotes discussion thread, and his experience was very similar to mine. He called Taklamakan “the discovery of the [Exsence] show,” adding
It is beautiful, some sweetness, spices and vanilla, smoky at the beginning, after a few hours with remarkable patchouly heart, but still charming, flattering, embracing. Great silage and it lasts and lasts. A masterpiece. I love it and will certainly purchase it. Completely unisex.
He elaborated a bit further on the olfactory profile when asked how it compared to SHL 777’s 2022 Generation Homme, replying:
Taklamakan is less oriental-spicy, but more balsamic-woody. Spices play, if at all, a minor role.
I obviously experienced a ton of spiciness as compared to him, but I share his feelings about the appealing nature of the scent, the patchouli being at its heart (or heart stage), the sillage, the longevity, and the fact that it is wholly unisex. I think it’s also the sort of thing that is very easy to wear in general.
Having said that, I don’t think this is a scent for people who hate patchouli. The variety used here, Patchouli Coeur, is very clean and the furthest thing from a 1970s “head shop” smell, but patchouli is patchouli. If you hate it, the large amount here probably won’t be for you, even if it is mostly woody or leavened with gourmand elements.
Speaking of which, I have no idea how people who dislike sweetness or any sort of gourmands will react to Taklamakan. I have an incredibly low threshold of tolerance, and yet I still ended up falling for the scent anyway. Part of it is that things become much more manageable after the rather brutal first 20 minutes (so much sugariness! Gah!); part of it is that one becomes acclimated after one wearing; and part of it is the counterbalance provided by all the other accords, most of which increase exponentially in strength as time goes by, cutting through the sweetness and keeping it in check. If someone like me found the result addictive the more I tried it, then perhaps other sugar-phobes may as well. My advice is to be patient, and to give Taklamakan at least two tries before you make up your mind. Also, I think larger scent applications bring out the balancing notes, particularly the smoky woods, spice, and patchouli, while smaller dosages seem to emphasize the caramel and sugar in the first 90 minutes. So, play around with quantity as well.
I’m strongly inclined to buy a bottle of Taklamakan when it comes out, and it helps that it’s priced at the lower end of the SHL 777 range at $185 or €148. That’s for a 50 ml bottle of pure parfum that has roughly the same high 24% concentration as the other fragrances in the line. As a side note, the actual suggested retail price for Europe is €135, but First in Fragrance charges €148 for the SHL 777s in this category, like the lovely iris-amber-heliotrope, Khol de Bahrein, or the gourmand immortelle-marmalade-tobacco, Une Nuit à Doha. Still, the point is that Taklamakan is not at the high end of the SHL scale (like the magnificent but exorbitantly priced amber monster, O Hira) and it is relatively “cheap,” at least on a purely comparative basis.
All in all, Taklamakan is my favourite out of the last three, recent SHL 777 releases, and I give it a big thumbs up!
Disclosure: My perfume samples were provided courtesy of Stéphane Humbert Lucas. That did not influence this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.