Close your eyes and imagine yourself spending a day in an old souk, perhaps in Marrakesh or Tripoli. The air is thick with heat, so you buy a refreshing drink of blood oranges infused with Angostura aromatic bitters, decorated with candied orange peels and sprigs of fresh herbs. One vendor catches your eye, his tables piled high with leathery black figs, the fattest, stickiest Medjool dates, syrup-laden Middle Eastern sweets, and honeyed desserts. Large sacks of colourful spices lie on the ground, next to ones filled with bitter Bay Leaf, oregano, and other green herbs. Nearby, bottles of rich labdanum amber and leathery Tolu balsam resins surround gleaming silver trays filled with cinnamon-scented, hard, dark benzoin resinoids.
An enterprising chap, the seller even offers you cooked food in case you missed your lunch, large bowls filled with curries or banana-leaf savory dishes straight from his Indian wife’s kitchen. You stand before his wares, sipping your drink of herbal Angostura bitters and orange, nibbling on a dried date as you contemplate ordering either a main meal or dessert. Suddenly, a vendor on a bike comes out of nowhere and crashes into you. The barrel of immortelle in the back goes flying into the air, crashing into the tables, throwing everything to the ground, and releasing a flood of sticky syrup over them all. Apologizing profusely, the vendor offers to cook you dinner in his kitchen. Hours later, he replaces your ruined clothing with an outfit made of soft Tuareg leather, but the resins from the accident still coat your skin, encasing you in a cloud of amber infused with spices, sweet myrrh, and sweetness.
This is the tale and progression of Arabie on my skin, a gourmand-oriental hybrid that traverses the souks and kitchens of the Middle East to end in leather and amber. It’s an eau de parfum that was created with Christopher Sheldrake and released in 2000 as part of the export line, meaning it is widely available in 50 ml bottles. The fragrance’s official description is merely a quote from Serge Lutens:
“Arabia, immense within us, embraces all fragrances.
‘Nuts and dried fruits are noble.’ This piece of wisdom was handed down to us through Greek mythology. Dried fruits, currant raisins, dates and cashews, anything fragrant. Like a caravan lost in the desert.” – Serge Lutens
Arabie’s note list varies depending on where you look. Sites like Luckyscent say it’s:
Cedar, sandalwood, candied mandarin peel, dried figs, dates, cumin, nutmeg, clove, balsamic resins, Tonka bean, Siamese benzoin, myrrh.
Fragrantica adds bay leaf and labdanum to that list. I agree, but I’m convinced that there is also a huge amount of immortelle and Tolu balsam in Arabie, as well as a smaller dose of sweet myrrh. So, in my opinion, the fuller or more complete list would therefore look like this:
Cedar, sandalwood, candied mandarin peel, dried figs, dates, cumin, nutmeg, clove, bay leaf, immortelle, Tolu balsam, labdanum amber, balsamic resins, tonka bean, Siam benzoin, myrrh, and sweet myrrh.
Arabie opens on my skin with sticky dates and tannic, almost leathery figs, both submerged under a steady stream of immortelle absolute that smells like maple syrup, curry, and banana leaves combined. A host of fresh, dried, and aromatic herbs from the kitchen pantry are lavishly strewn on top: a generous handful of fenugreek; a pinch of fresh basil; a cup of oregano; and several large, brimming cups of bay leaf that smells immensely bitter and medicinal.
Between the two camps — the herbal and the sweet — lies an orange note that takes elements from each because it smells simultaneously candied, dried, and as fresh as blood oranges mixed with bitter Seville bigararde. It’s not a powerful note, nothing remotely as intense as the dried fruits, immortelle syrup or herbs, and it seems to hide mostly behind the bitter, almost medicinal aromatics of the herbs in a way that makes me think of a Campari cocktail where the bartender put more Angostura bitters than actual Campari.
But that’s not all. It’s as though a chef suddenly felt the need to raid the rest of his pantry lest he hurt the feelings of other ingredients by leaving them out, because all of this is then set against a fluctuating backdrop of nutmeg laced with cloves, a pinch of earthy cumin, and the immortelle’s curry powder side. Like a diaphanous curtain blowing back and forth in the distance, the spices sometimes waft by on the breeze in a clear, distinct fashion but, more often than not, they’re subsumed within Arabie’s opening brown-red-gold core.
That immensely foodie combination goes beyond mere gourmandise or the dessert portion of a meal; it’s every meal ever made in a Middle Eastern kitchen. The immortelle isn’t just the glue holding the sticky dried fruits and bitter herbs together, and it’s not simply as sweet as honeyed or maple syrup dessert. It’s also immensely savoury in feel, and redolent of Indian curries. I suspect some of you are probably shuddering and thinking that it all sounds terribly ghastly, but the curry aspect is better modulated and balanced than you might think, at least on my skin. Plus, a lot of the times, the food is more of an impressionistic abstraction than a heavy or absolute reality. In a way, it’s more like the traces of a thousand past dinners that linger in the air, the old wooden beams, and every nook and cranny in a Middle Eastern family’s kitchen.
Under this all, Arabie’s base runs thick with the same labdanum, resin, and benzoin accord that lay at the heart of Lutens’ famous, pioneering amber, Ambre Sultan. It’s as though Sheldrake and Oncle Serge took the latter’s medicinal, herbal top notes and amber base notes, gave them a gourmand face-lift by blanketing them immortelle syrup, then decorated them with half the dried fruits and spices of his local souk. There is no doubt at all in my mind that Serge Lutens sought take Ambre Sultan in a different direction when he composed Arabie, turning his amber into something semi-gourmand in nature, and transforming its herbal amber focus into something more complex that also included his now-signature dark fruit accord.
The disconcerting thing for me is that all these typically dense, thick, sometimes opaque accords feel astonishingly thin on my skin in the case of Arabie. I applied several generous, wide smears equal to 2 large sprays from an actual bottle, and the result was a fragrance that was far, far sheerer than I had expected. Arabie is strong in scent up close, particularly the aromatic bitter herbs, but I can’t get over how lightweight it is in body and feel. The projection is on the low side, too, radiating about 2.5 inches, at most, in the opening moments. The sillage is merely average, roughly 4 inches, although it remains there for a surprisingly long period of time without change. In addition, Arabie also wafts nicely around me if I move my arms. Still, the sheerness of the scent… had I not wanted to avoid screwing up my standard baseline, I would have doubled the quantity application because Arabie is bizarrely diaphanous, strong, quiet, and light, all at the same time. I think it’s my skin’s fault; it seems to eat through both the body and the sillage.
Another thing that surprised me was how quickly the many elements fuse together in the second stage which begins as soon as 40 minutes into the fragrance’s development. I genuinely cannot tell where several notes end and another begins. It’s a sticky blur of honeyed, fruity, bitter, savoury, herbal, green, spicy, ambered, resinous, musky, gourmand orientalism. If there were plums instead of tannic figs and dates, and if the immortelle’s banana leaf/curry aromas were less intense, I’d compare Arabie to a Christmas fruit cake. But there is no plum, brandy/cognac, or vanillic icing on my skin, only the more savoury aspects of a kitchen dinner.
At this stage, Arabie is very similar to Cadavre Exquis, the recent collaboration between Bogue‘s Antonio Gardoni and Fazzolari‘s Bruno Fazzolari. However, there are differences between the two scents as well. First, I think Arabie is significantly smoother, as well as a more seamless blend, even if the latter results in an overly fast loss of note clarity/delineation. Second, its notes all feel proportionally equal, whereas Cadavre Exquis’ banana leaf/curry/syrupy immortelle leads the pack by a huge margin. Third, I think Cadavre Exquis is monumentally sweeter, in addition to being dense in feel and heavy in weight. Arabie is softer, lighter, and thinner. Fourth, it doesn’t feel overtly synthetic in the way that Cadavre Exquis occasionally did on my skin, particularly during its middle and drydown phases when it wafted Tauer-like tarriness and powerful aromachemicals. In contrast, Arabie’s drydown, as you will soon see, is all about natural, richly balsamic, leathery resins led by Tolu balsam and labdanum. Finally, to me, Arabie feels more polished, better balanced, and more thematically consistent than Cadavre Exquis which its perfumers described as a “Frankenstein” creation with ostensibly mismatched parts. Arabie’s aromatic herbal bitterness and immensely foodie aspects may be a struggle for someone with my low threshold for sweetness and personal tastes, but I still find it to be an easier fragrance when all the factors are taken together.
Arabie continues to shift as its second stage progresses. Roughly 90 minutes in, the aromatic greenness weakens, smelling now mostly of generalized bitterness and generalized dried herbs instead of specific, individual notes. They certainly aren’t dominated by the bitter, almost medicinal bay leaf or the heaping dose of oregano in quite the same forceful and distinct fashion as the opening. In the same way, both the dried fruits and the spices are more amorphous now, quieter, and milder.
A more critical change occurs about 2.25 hours into Arabie’s development when its base notes seep upwards, turning the fragrance more leathery, less purely gourmand, and less sweet. Instead of its core being dominated or driven primarily by immortelle, it’s now resins instead. Their leatheriness is sometimes like musky castoreum but, above all else, they resemble a the resinous and more heavily spiced version of the Tuareg leather in Lutens’ Cuir Mauresque. It’s equal parts dry, sweet, animalic, spiced, musky, and faintly, just faintly, a bit sweaty and skanky as well, thanks to the cumin.
What surprises me is the powerful wave of licorice that it wafts whenever I smell my arm up close, leading me to believe that Arabie has a hefty dose of Tolu balsam in its base because licorice is one of its common nuances on my skin whenever really large quantities of the resin are employed. The dried fruits and spices are subsumed within this dark, balsamic core, while the green herbs are tiny, darting fireflies in the background now, barely noticeable except for the persistent bitterness that they bear.
In effect, these changes mark a transition point that takes Arabie into amber territory, and out of both the kitchens and the souks. By the start of the 4th hour, Arabie’s long, satisfying heart stage begins, and the fragrance is primarily centered on soft, musky, leathery and almost chocolate-y Tolu balsam that is layered with cinnamon-scented benzoin and gorgeous labdanum that is darkly toffee’d, heavily honeyed, and sexily musky. Dabs of tannic, dried fruits lie in it like flies caught in amber. Immortelle syrup (that no longer smells like anything foodie, curried, or savoury) adds another layer of sweetness to the balsamic resins. Finishing things off, a handful of earthy brown spices is thrown on top for good measure.
This goes on for hours and it’s lovely, even if it’s still too sweet for my personal tastes. The “leather” sometimes smolders in the way that resins can in really concentrated doses, but there is a plushness that gradually appears as well, an almost velvety thickness that keeps me coming back for many an appreciative sniff. From the 6th hour onwards, Arabie’s bouquet reminds me a lot of parts of Sultan Pasha‘s Ambrecuir attar crossed with his Resine Precieux, and perhaps a drop of MFK‘s Ciel de Gum in its cinnamon-benzoin late stage (but without any of its musk). I’m not saying it’s an exact analogy, though. Arabie still has a noticeable immortelle note that occasionally wafts its maple syrup aroma; its leather is darker and less heavily buttered than the calfskin leather in Ambrecuir; its spice profile differs from Resine Precieux; and there is a lingering suggestion of dark fruits, albeit a very abstract, impressionistic, and muted one that is muffled by everything else. Be that as it may, I think the two attars combined together are a better comparison than Ambre Sultan at this point because the latter is not leathery or brimming to the top with Tolu balsam. In Arabie, the labdanum is engulfed with the resins, rather than the being the star of the show.
All that changes when the long drydown begins at the end of the 8th hour and the start of the 9th. The labdanum takes over, the sweet myrrh rears its head, and the “leather” disappears, its absence opening the door for the syrupy sweetness to return. In essence, Arabie’s drydown is the gourmand version of Ambre Sultan’s drydown. The sweetness occasionally bears a slightly acrid quality when I sniff my arm up close, perhaps because it feels like the syrup been reduced to its most concentrated essence, then mixed with the smoky side of the sweet myrrh. At other times, though, especially later on, Arabie has a gorgeous caramel aroma that is perfectly balanced and never too sweet. It works particularly well with the abstract, amorphous spiciness and the sometimes vanillic nuances of the benzoin. The best part of all may be the immensely nutty aroma of the sweet myrrh that comes out almost 16 hours from the fragrance’s start, lending a praline, pecan, or nougat aroma to the amber. In its final moments, that’s largely all that’s left, a wisp of quietly spicy caramel-praline.
Arabie has astonishing longevity on my skin for a fragrance whose lightness, thinness, and softness I’ve already recounted. I’ve talked about the opening sillage and projection numbers, but the latter just drops and drops. After 60 minutes, Arabie is down to 1.5 inches, maybe 2 at best, although the sillage remains at 3-4 for almost 6 hours. About 3.5 hours in, the projection is down to an inch. Arabie turns into a skin scent on me after 5.5 hours, but the fragrance is easy to detect up close for hours to come. After 9 hours, things get interesting. Arabie coats the skin like a soft, plush wisp, and I was sure that we were reaching the end. So imagine my disbelief when I could still detect Arabie 14 hours, 16 hours, and, to my slack-jawed astonishment, 24 hours from the start. To be clear, I always had to put my nose right on my arm and skin to detect it from the 10th hour onwards, but it was unquestionably there. No doubt at all. Spicy labdanum amber with gourmand syrup at first, caramel praline from the 16th hour on. I’m amazed. This is a fragrance whose discreetness, thinness, and lightness seemed unlikely to last more than 10 hours, let alone more than twice than amount. And I’m hardly the only one who experienced great longevity. The majority of Fragrantica longevity votes are for the two highest categories, and a Luckyscent poster mentioned experiencing 15 hours.
My feelings about Arabie really span the spectrum. On the one hand, I really don’t like the aromatic bitters and the almost medicinal bay leaf that is such a prominent aspect of first two hours on my skin. I realise they exist to try to counterbalance the gourmand elements but they don’t succeed, which brings me to my second point. If you’ve read me for any amount of time, you’ll know that my threshold for sweetness is exceedingly low and that I’m not a gourmand lover. As I’ve explained, Arabie goes beyond mere gourmandise and practically lives in the kitchen for the first 4 hours. I find that to be extremely difficult. I do not want to smell of curried foods, let alone curried foods, bitter herbs, and syrup-laden desserts simultaneously. On the other hand, the leather stage is lovely (though still too sweet for me), while the drydown is fantastic! It’s actually better than Ambre Sultan, particularly once the sweet myrrh kicks in.
When I reviewed Cadavre Exquis, a reader’s comment about Arabie made me realise something for which I feel a little ashamed: I always forget about Arabie. It’s not merely that I tend to block it out of my mind because of the immense sweetness, bitterness, and culinary aspects of the opening, but I also forget about the enjoyable parts as well. In retesting it over the last few weeks, I tried to figure out why, and I think the answer is that Arabie gets lost amidst the slew of oriental gourmands or amber gourmands that have saturated the market in recent years. I always forget about Ambre Sultan for very similar reasons: an opening that isn’t my cup of tea, a thin/sheer/soft body, and a bouquet that is not distinctive or original in this day and age. (Arabie actually is quite distinctive in its start, but it’s for the very reasons that makes me block it out of my mind. In contrast, Ambre Sultan feels practically generic in this day and age, even if it does have some herbal bitterness at its start.)
It’s unfair of me to forget the fragrances and their originality back then, particularly Arabie. We’re in 2016, but try to cast your mind back to 2000 when it was released. That was seven years after Ambre Sultan forged a new direction in perfumery by focusing primarily on labdanum that was as dark and as sticky as the night, and not heavily diluted into polite, safe, tame abstraction by the usual vanilla, benzoin, or florals. In 2000 when Arabie debuted, the olfactory landscape was dominated by “fresh” sporty aromatic colognes like Hilfiger’s popular Tommy, by Mugler‘s Aliens and Angels, and by fresh, clean florals. Guerlain had just released Mahora and hadn’t yet plunged headlong into its future role as the go-to luxury brand for gourmands. And the king of all sales was undoubtedly 1995’s calone-heavy, aquatic fragrance, Acqua di Gio. (A 2012 article cites a claim by L’Oreal, owner of the Armani brand, that a bottle of Acqua di Gio is sold somewhere in the world every 5 seconds. Consider that if you will. Every 5 seconds.)
For a fragrance like Arabie to enter this landscape took major balls, not to mention keen foresight. You and I are used to dozens upon dozens of oriental gourmands being released each year, now, in 2016, but back in 2000? At the end of the 1990s with all that the decade represented in terms of olfaction? I can’t even begin to imagine what someone used to the Tommy’s of that decade would make of a scent that planted you squarely in the center of a hot Moroccan spice bazaar, and then served up Middle Eastern and Indian savory dishes on your skin as well. Hell, I’m not sure what most people will make of Arabie today! Still, I think one can argue that it paved the way for the gourmand/oriental hybrid that is so popular today, so I have to bow down to Oncle Serge’s visionary brilliance and foresight, even if I find the fragrance to be excessively foodie and gourmand for my own tastes. (And I promise not to keep forgetting about it, no matter how much its opening makes me twitch and want to block it out. Ambre Sultan I’ll probably forget about next week again. Sorry.)
Speaking of the two fragrance, in Perfumes: the A-Z Guide, Tania Sanchez gives Arabie a Four-Star rating and calls it “more daring” than Ambre Sultan. Classifying Arabie as “herbal bitters,” she writes:
A cousin to Ambre Sultan, Arabie is slightly more daring and less comfortable, with fewer debts to Shalimar than to the herbal, anisic floral of L’Heure Bleue. Playing on the plaintive interval of bitter and sweet that makes liqueurs like Hungary’s Unicum so memorable, Arabie sets a powerful suite of herbs like basil and bay against a polished mahogany backdrop of dried dates. The combination is dense, delectable, and uncanny, a familiar tune transcribed to a strange scale.
As always with Serge Lutens, perfumista opinions are firmly mixed. One reason why is that people frequently find that it resembles a Christmas fruit cake, although “curry” is mentioned on occasion, too. For example, Fragrantica poster “Najgirl” writes, in part:
I really wanted to love this one, but just can’t. […] Like several other reviewers, I get a spicy fruitcake, with lots of dates, followed by curry. After a while, this starts to smell like a spicy Holiday candle – not bad at all, just a room smell, not something I want to wear.
Contrast that the raves from Arabie’s equally large number of fans like “Madrona” who writes:
Yes. Yes yes yes. This is nose-gasm material. This easily qualifies into my top 5 oriental list right away. Even though it is spicy, it is impossibly soft, round, fluffy, syrupy. I’m loving the date note in particular since it is so unusual. The nutmeg invokes just a touch of Organza, but mostly it is all about the dried fruit and spices. Delectable.
Other Fragrantica posters feel the same way but, again, not everyone. One person didn’t like Arabie’s “medicinal” aspect, while another start off adoring the rich, spicy, fruity gourmand opening before becoming aghast at the curry that appeared on his skin during the drydown.
Opinions are just as split on Luckyscent and MakeupAlley. On the first site, four or five people share Tania Sanchez’s opinion that Arabie is actually far better than Ambre Sultan. A few people found it turned into a love on the second go-around, while others loved it right from the start or call it “full bottle worthy.” In the dissenting camp, however, one Luckyscenter disliked the “chicken tikka masala” food vibe, another thought Arabie smelt like a cheap incense head-shop, and a third thought it smelt like a man’s pipe. On MakeupAlley, food comes up frequently, but a good number of people seem to really love the spice blend mixed with gourmandise. They call it: their “favourite oriental winter fragrance,” their Holy Grail, or a “masterpiece.” The dissenting group is horrified by the medicinal bitterness, the “aggressive” lashings of spice and sweet myrrh, or the “muscle rub” scent of the cloves. One person says the curry and “spice bazaar” bouquet is “beautiful” but “completely unwearable as a perfume.” Another loves the smell on her friend’s skin but its culinary aroma on her own skin leads to the funniest description of Arabie that I’ve read: “the ultimate poetic savory soul crushing oriental gourmand.” “Soul crushing.” Hilarious.
My favourite review from any site, though, was written by MakeupAlley’s “Mac789” and reads, in part, as follows:
Arabie may be the most complex Oriental fragrance I have ever smelled. Back before the more esoteric niche houses (some of whose frags smell like nervous breakdowns), Arabie was a shocker. Stuffed full of heavy, almost irritating spices, stewed and dried fruits, and a bushel of myrrh, Arabie was intoxicating. You’d get so drunk on the stuff that you’d be easily overwhelmed.
In the years since, I have come to a new appreciation of what a masterpiece Arabie is. So few frags actually smell like their names that when one does so, it is a relief. You can almost tell what Arabie will smell like from the notes, which is no mean feat.
One could use any number of muscular adjectives to describe Arabie: meaty, beefy, fiery, hot, vehement…violent. Violent? Indeed, because to my nose, there is an extended metaphor of grilled meat (also found in Fumerie Turque) lurking in the smoky benzoin of the base; one is reminded of goat grilling in the marketplace, the smoke permeating the air to the point that the smoke becomes perfume.
Arabie is an intense experience, a bit of a Smell-O-Rama thrill ride for the stateside audience. It opens fully Moroccan kitchen, with flavors of figs and dates and mandarin tagine being simmered down and strongly spiced. The fruits seem less dessert-like than they do accompaniment to a meat dish. Whatever natural sweetness existed on the tree has been spiced down so heavily that they become tangy through the liberal cumin, clove and nutmeg. […][¶]
Although complex, Arabie seems to move straight from the top to the drydown, likely because that drydown is very heavily weighted. Atlas cedar, sandalwood, strong medicinal benzoin, smoky tonka and bitter myrrh weave together into what seems like a native art.
Superb craftsmanship. Arabie should be hung in a museum or be written as the setting in a film. It’s even more brilliant when one realizes the foreign quality of it, both gustatorially and olfactorily. We aren’t, most of us, likely to find ourselves in the middle of a pungent bazaar, and nor can we relate what we smell in Arabie to our daily lives. We can only go about in subway cars that smell of Eternity, and that is a shame. Arabie is the most evocatively experiential fragrance I know.
I agree with so many of the points in that wonderfully descriptive piece, but particularly how Arabie is a Smell-o-Rama that transports us to a world that most people don’t get to visit and that is far, far away from subway cars that smell of Eternity. So, even if I’ve tried to make it abundantly clear that Arabie is not for everyone, if you are passionate about gourmands, gourmand ambers, or powerfully spiced orientals, then I think you really must give it a try. Plus, if you end up falling in love, Arabie is excellently priced on discount sites where a 50 ml bottle goes for as low as $58.49 or €53,42. (See the Details section below.) As compared to the $250-$550 price of many gourmands that I’ve covered, $58 a bottle is practically “free.”
Whether or not Arabie ends up being for you, it’s an excellent example of the old Lutens style and aesthetic. I have to say, I really miss it.