A song of fire and ice, to use George R.R. Martin’s words, is one way to describe Sarrasins, Serge Lutens‘ legendary animalic jasmine bell jar fragrance, but it is only the start. White flowers are stained purple, then given a fiery (carnation) bite that is also icy at the same time. Sweetness and a touch of girlie femininity come with a snarled lip and haughty contempt, cloaked in tough black (castoreum) leather. Delicate powder is juxtaposed with feral civet. Thick purple grapes and pink bubblegum that evoke an almost Andy Warhol-style of Pop Art run through flowers that bear a gothic feel at times. All of it, somehow, unexpectedly, works well together, and all of it repeatedly makes me think of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones and the progression of her character.
Sarrasins is an eau de parfum that was created with Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2007. It is part of the legendary Bell Jar Collection which means that it’s exclusive to Lutens’ Palais Royale Paris headquarters and the Lutens website. The two exceptions are Barney’s in New York and the US Lutens website where Sarrasins is sold for roughly an 80% mark-up. (For a way around this using a Paris shopper, see the Details section at the end.)
Before I continue I need to explain that my decant of Sarrasins dates back to 2013 and that is significant because fragrances tend to get reformulated after 5 or more years. Plus, over the last 18 months in particular, readers have repeatedly told me of reformulations in both the regular and Bell Jar lines. (Chergui has been changed quite a few times by now, significantly for the worse, as have several of its fellow export fragrances like Cuir Mauresque and Un Bois Vanille, and most people know about Iris Silver Mist and the various Bois fragrances, but hearing about Fourreau Noir and De Profundis this year genuinely made me sad.) I don’t know how my sample of Sarrasins compares to the original and I don’t have a current sample to assess if it’s been altered even more, but the fragrance is now 8 years old now and, therefore, it may have gone through at least one level of tweaking or dilution. So, what I will describe here may not an exact or identical olfactory representation of what was originally released or what is currently being sold at Le Palais Royale. I’m sorry for that, but there is little I can do.
On his website, “Le Grand Serge” describes Sarrasins as follows:
Applied at night in a Moorish silence, it barely touches the skin before it starts to resonate, like a ritual conducted in gilded surroundings.
I took white jasmine and contrived to make it as black as a panther, as black as night, which is embodied in this fragrance.
As always, the list of notes in a Lutens fragrance is kept secret but a number of people agree that, at a minimum, Sarrasins contains:
Jasmine, Carnation, Civet, Castoreum, Musk, and possibly Osmanthus.
Sarrasins opens on my skin with sweet, syrupy, and indolic jasmine that’s given facets of fire and ice through a gorgeous carnation note. The latter is chilly, spicy, fiery, and heady all at the same time, staining the jasmine’s lush petals with red. Yet, there is also abundant black here as well because Mr. Sheldrake treats the jasmine with the same methods that he previously used for Lutens’ gardenia (Une Voix Noire) and tuberose (Tubereuse Criminelle) fragrances where he deconstructed the flowers and manipulated their indoles to bring out their mentholated, camphorous sides as well. The difference here is that he’s turned the inherent coolness underlying the mentholated side of indoles into a major, powerful element of Sarrasins through the use of carnations. You know that spicy burst of heavily floral iciness that appears when you open a florist’s refrigerated case? That’s the scent of the carnations here, only they’re juxtaposed next to the heated lushness of ripe, languid, creamy jasmine as well.
The two flowers are heavily stained with purple, the same colour as Sarrasins’ actual juice, thanks to ripe, juicy Concord grapes. One of the natural organic compounds in white indolic flowers like gardenia is methyl anthranilate, the same organic compound that is also present in Concord grapes. According to Wikipedia, a synthetized aromachemical version of it is used quite a bit in perfumery as well. In Sarrasins, I don’t know whether the grape element comes from the natural side of jasmine or something else, but the floral component in the fragrance is definitely fleshed out by the thick sweetness of purple grapes (that sometimes bear a purple-pink bubblegum nuance as well). It’s a trick that Christopher Sheldrake employed for Lutens’ Billy Holiday bell jar gardenia, Une Voix Noire.
Sarrasins shifts within minutes. Wisps of pepperiness dance at the edges, followed by new ripples of civet that quietly augment the jasmine’s indoles and their camphorated blackness. In the base, a leathery, musky castoreum begins to stir. Up top, there is a subtle powderiness that is sweet and floral. At first, it doesn’t seem like a separate note so much as an indirect off-shoot or by-product of one of the other elements but, slowly, it coalesces into something resembling either orris or osmanthus. It’s not precisely a makeup powder puff and, yet, there is a dusty and feminine quality to it that is difficult to explain. Regardless, it’s not a major note and it’s far outweighed by the jasmine’s grapey, mentholated, and indolic sides.
Sarrasins continues to radiate different facets as it develops. The civet grows increasingly strong after 30 minutes, fusing with the black indoles, the spicy and peppery carnation, and the orris-y powderiness. At the same time, the castoreum begins to seep up from the base, a gradual progression that sends out tendrils of a different sort of musky animalism. All of them dance around the white jasmine, much like acolytes worshiping their queen on high, and the result is not only fire and ice, but leathery, peppery, and animalic blackness as well, a jasmine that feels simultaneously hard and soft.
Intellectually and technically, I admire it a lot but, emotionally, it doesn’t always hit me on a visceral, emotional level. At times, Sarrasins feels like a gothic take on jasmine. Yet, whenever I’m faced with grape and bubble-gum notes in a white floral bouquet, I’m always reminded of Pop Art and Andy Warhol — and that’s quite a different aesthetic and vibe from the “black panther” that is intended. I appreciate the juxtaposition of the castoreum’s masculine leather, the powderiness’ femininity, the civet’s bite, and the carnation’s iciness, but I’m much more moved on a personal level by the narcotic headiness of Serge Lutens’ other jasmine creation, A La Nuit. If the latter lasted in any way on me instead of dying a bizarrely rapid death, it would probably be my favourite jasmine of all, thanks to a bright, fresh, semi-green, almost bridal jasmine bouquet that is taken to such lush abandon and extreme excess that Tania Sanchez called it “death by jasmine” in the Perfumes guide.
A La Nuit is a different style or treatment of jasmine, but I’d be the first to admit that it’s hardly as sophisticated or as complex as Sarrasins. A La Nuit is really just a simple jasmine soliflore. Sarrasins is not, even if some of the accompanying notes exist purely in service of the jasmine. It feels more multi-faceted and nuanced, and it has a bite which A La Nuit definitely lacks. My favourite part of Sarrasins is the carnation, a flower which I love in general for precisely the chilly, fiery, spicy aspects that I keep mentioning here, but those elements feel particularly inspired when merged with the surprisingly heated, almost tropical quality of the musky, lush jasmine-civet-castoreum accord here.
You’ll probably laugh but the cumulative effect for most of Sarrasins’ first three hours repeatedly makes me think of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. Admittedly, the “fire and ice” tag started it all, but the way Sarrasins develops calls to mind Cersei’s progression as well. In the first few episodes, she’s a haughty, icy, golden-haired queen who pretends to be the epitome of compliant femininity on the surface as she follows her kingly husband about, all the while keeping her biting, fiery, lusty, and ferociously dark side secret. Very soon, that dangerous side comes to the surface, eventually culminating in the predatory, black leather-garbed Cersei at the end of GOT’s sixth season. (I’m intentionally avoiding specific details, as well as the exact photo that would demonstrate my mental image, to avoid spoiling the show for those who have not yet seen Season 6.)
A parallel transformation occurs to Sarrasins on my skin. At the end of the first hour and the start of the second, the jasmine’s creamy white petals drip with as much civet and leathery muskiness as they do smoky, black indoles and peppery, spicy carnation. A veil of floral powderiness hangs on top, a nod to femininity that is matched by the jasmine’s inherent syrupy sweetness, but this is really a rapacious, “take no prisoners” jasmine that has no interest in playing nice, in being conventionally feminine or delicately proper. She’s got a snarl, her teeth bared with sharply animalic (civet) venom, her sophistication draped in (carnation) chilliness and hauteur, as she sits on a throne of (castoreum, indolic, and camphorated) blackness. It’s Cersei Lannister in perfume form.
Unlike some of the famous Lutens bell jar fragrances, Sarrasins doesn’t twist, turn, and morph in major, dramatic fashion on my skin, but it does frequently alter the order, prominence, and nuances of its notes. By the end of the 2nd hour, the fragrance turns smokier and darker. The grape-y purpleness disappears, the powderiness grows faint, the castoreum turns into simple animalic muskiness, as its leathery undertone becomes a mere hint in the background. Now, Sarrasins is largely a three-way race between the civet, the red, spicy/chilly carnation, and the indolic, blackened jasmine. But it doesn’t stay that way.
About 3.5 hours in, to my surprise, the jasmine recedes to the background, fluctuating and shimmering as the softest, quietest and most impressionistic floral sweetness, leaving only its black indoles behind on center stage to twine around the carnation and the increasingly urinous, musky civet. On occasion, the streaks of jasmine are so thin and muted that they seem to disappear almost entirely but, each time, much like the ebbing and flowing of the tide, they return in stronger form, rippling forth to stroke the civety carnation’s petals with a lusher, warmer, more syrupy floral sweetness. There really isn’t much else. Once in a blue moon, there is an elusive suggestion of something vaguely resembling cloves, but it may be just another side of the carnation. A hint of the osmanthus or orris-y (or benzoin-ish?) powderiness pops up just as infrequently, then quickly darts away.
For the most part, though, Sarrasins is predominantly about the chilly, spicy carnation and the animalic civet on my skin. The latter’s muskiness is sometimes sharply urinous, sometimes akin to fur and heated skin, just as it is in the middle to late stages of Lutens’ Muscs Koublai Khan.
Sarrasins remains this way for a while, growing sheerer, quieter, simpler, and more impressionistic with every passing hour. About 6.25 hours in, I thought the fragrance was close to fizzling out, but it hangs on tenaciously as the thinnest lacquer on the skin for a bit longer. To my surprise, the jasmine makes a return towards the end, although the civet often overwhelms both flowers. In its last moments, all that’s left is a sweet, indolic, chilly, spicy, vaguely jasmine-ish floralcy that is thoroughly drenched in sharp, occasionally urinous, civety musk.
Sarrasins had good longevity, initially good sillage, and moderate-to-low projection on my skin. Using several generous smears equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, the fragrance opened with about 3-4 inches of projection and 5-6 inches of sillage. At the end of the 2nd hour, the projection was about 1.5 inches, and the sillage was 3-4 inches, although the latter seemed to extend further whenever I moved my arms. What was unexpected was the way those tendrils continued to quietly weave out even when Sarrasins turned into a skin scent about 3.75 hours into its development, albeit weave in a very soft, minor way. Equally strange was the way Sarrasins became so wan, sheer, and discreet on me after 6 hours that I was sure it was about to die. Every moment after that, its demise seemed equally imminent. Yet, Sarrasins clung on tenaciously, lasting just under 9 hours in total.
Serge Lutens’ Bell Jar fragrances are intentionally more challenging than the regular line, so it should come as no surprise that Fragrantica opinions are split on the question of Sarrasins. One person preferred A La Nuit‘s style of jasmine, while a second thought Sarrasins was merely a boring jasmine soliflore. Several people were put off by the animalics: one thought the fragrance smelt like “urinal cakes,” no doubt thanks to the civet, while “Black Ivory” wrote that Sarrasins smelt “like the stable boy and the lady of the manor had a romp.” She didn’t mean it in a good way, largely because the animalics smelt to her like horses and feces.
On the other end of the spectrum are the positive reviews like the one from “Colin Maillard” with its beautiful imagery:
Sarrasins opens with a powerful and radiant blend of flowers featuring artificial nuances of aldehydes and metallic notes but nonetheless good, elegant, foggy and somehow rarefied even if at the same time quite dense, rich and powerful. All is centered around flowers (a dry, austere, grey, refined, silky and shady accord of jasmine and carnation refreshed by slight balsamic notes) supported by a light woody-herbal base and perhaps a hint of benzoin too. As minutes pass Sarrasins warms up turning towards more sweet and delicate territories, always keeping it ambiguous and quite austere: the “graphic” feel is like opening the windows in a dusty, abandoned, once sumptuous room of an ancient house, with the white light enlightening dust, abandon and greyness. A really elegant, somehow baroque scent, distinguished in a cold, almost arrogant way; so cold it almost smells, paradoxically, a bit anonymous. It has however a peculiar and intriguing charm, an odd, icy, dark and unfriendly sort of elegance and refinement. Beautifully awkward. [¶] 8/10
For “Steveniox,” Sarrasins took time to love but something suddenly clicked after a week, and he or she wrote that Sarrasins became “the perfume I expected, what I thought it would be… and it’s borderline perfection.” Their review reads, in part, as follows:
Yes, it does open with a bright, just-budding jasmine, heightened by spicy notes and a swirl of other floral tinges, but it settles down in time to, what I would call and as others have mentioned, a sort of ‘reduced’ jasmine; a representation rather than the actual thing. Like a painting or, indeed, a sculpture of a jasmine flower as mentioned below. It becomes dry, progressively sweetening, dusty, slightly metallic / cold, almost clove-studded. The budding flower has been abandoned and left to wilt, scorned for its austerity, and collects powder in some forgotten corner. This stage triggers some quite powerful memories and images for me… It is a sad, melancholy perfume on my skin and in my mind. Deep and dark, yet somehow aloof and cold, powerful, all at once.
It moves once more however to the final stages, as waves of indoles and animalics, reminiscent of MKK, begin to sweep in as the jasmine finally begins to rot. The powdered sweetness cannot hide the browning petals as they droop, releasing the smell of their spicy decay. It’s as if the whole life-cycle of the flower is played out before me, on my skin – from budding to eventual wilt and death. Beautiful.
This process isn’t short-lived either From initial spray to end, it takes approximately 8 hours, before settling into that musk-tinged, sweet-touched, almost leathery jasmine. It remains at this stage for a *very* long time – I’m adding this review 36 hours after application, and it’s still noticeable. A must-buy for me! [Emphasis added to MKK/Muscs Koublai Khan name by me.]
For some people, Sarrasins’ jasmine is “an artistic rendition rather than a photorealistic approximation,” while others view it as “sublime,” a “black panther,” or a “moody,” “palpably sexual” jasmine with a growl. That last description came from “YourFoxiness” who fell for Sarrasins despite once hating jasmine immensely, and whose 2013 review also compares the difference between the Lutens wax sample and the liquid version:
Sarrasins is beautiful. I have never been the type to love a floral bombastic beauty. I usually prefer a complex blend, but something kept drawing me back to the sample. Sniffing the wax samples, my nose always landed over this one. Something creamy. As white, and soft as virgin skin. When I close my eyes & lose myself in the scent I picture only pale beauty. Unashamed, captivating and confident, she enjoys the feel of silken sheets & fine things. Jasmine so beautiful the smell brings to mind the actual tactile FEEL of a silken petal. A bed strewn with hundreds of them. And something darkly palpable, delicious tension you could cut with a knife. I feel like this perfume is for the bedroom, or a dark room. For a black dress, or nothing at all. It is for the white skinned beauty that lures you into delicious darkness. You follow her to your divine destruction.. And you go willingly into the night. Her night.
Honestly, such a beautiful jasmine. Creamy, and darkly mysterious, almost palpably sexual, like a racing heartbeat & dilated eyes..I refuse to pick it apart further. I don’t care to. If you love jasmine, this is a must try. I find it FB worthy, and I used to detest jasmine strongly. She has me.
Time for a review edit, now that I’ve tried the liquid a couple of times, & I’m still very much in love. The growl is louder, there is a lot more “presence” here, than with the wax sample. There is a bit of a fruity aspect on the top that floats around a bit, but never lands thank goodness, its just for balance. I could see this perfume as being “moody” it may love you one moment & seem too strong another. But I love strong fragrances at night, and to be clothed in the dark, there is no better scent.
For Luca Turin, Sarrasins was a 5-star “leather floral” masterpiece. In his Perfumes book, he wrote, in part:
Sarrasins (Saracens) starts with a tremendous blast of properly indolic jasmine. Just when you are finished saying “Very nice” and are beginning to form the thought “Where is this white floral going next?” it briefly modulates to what you think is going to be a dark, minor-mode leather note and immediately afterward startles you with a refulgent blast of apricots. The leather-apricots accord smells to me like osmanthus, and the duet with jasmine then carries on satisfyingly for hours. I’ve been a Lutens fan from day one, but of late had trouble liking several fragrances that felt oddly loud, even crude. This one is in a completely different league in both intent and execution, an ambitious, abstract, large, rich, sweeping thing of beauty that smells fantastic on skin, is devoid of any overt orientalism, and could just as well have formed part of the new Chanel collection.
I rather wish I’d encountered those osmanthus apricots. I have to wonder if they were something that was lost in reformulation because nothing in my 2013 sample resembled them. The fragrance didn’t bear quite so much richness as Mr. Turin describes, either. I have to also say that Sarrasins felt less complex and “baroque” than some of the earlier descriptions that I’ve read.
Having said that, I do agree with Mr. Turin and some of the Fragrantica commentators that there is an abstract, impressionistic quality to some of the notes, particularly as the fragrance develops, but I wasn’t enamoured by it. To be honest, I found the later parts of Sarrasins to be quite boring and overly simplistic. Impressionistic florals or musky civet-carnation only go so far for me. Again, I have to wonder what the 2007 Sarrasins was like.
Having said that, I do think Sarrasins is a “must-try” if you’re an ardent fan of indolic jasmine, floral leathers, and animalic florals. If you don’t love all three genres, then I’m not sure I would recommend it. The Paris Bell Jar Exclusives are intentionally meant to be challenging “Art,” and Sarrasins is bound to be difficult if you have no tolerance for civet, castoreum, or indoles.
As for gender, I know almost as many men who love and wear Sarrasins as women, largely because of its dark, leathery, and musky sides. If you’re a man who tests the fragrance and initially finds it too “femme,” give it an hour or two. Your opinion may change when the animalics fully emerge.
At the end of the day, Sarrasins isn’t for me personally, partially because I prefer A La Nuit’s “death by jasmine” and partially because I find its price is a little expensive for what appears on my skin when taken as a whole from start to finish, particularly given its discreetness later on. Despite that, though, I thoroughly enjoyed its dramatic, bold, highly evocative, and sophisticated first half, and I respect the intention behind it. Luca Turin called Sarrasins “in a completely different league” from some of the other Lutens and, given the most recent releases, I think that statement is true now more than ever.