There are unicorns that hide amongst the shadows of our world, fragrance unicorns that are spoken about in hushed, reverential tones, fragrances of such great rarity that they rise from the eBay mists only a bit more frequently than King Arthur’s Avalon. These myths of legend belong to an elite club in the vintage world, and one of them is Nombre Noir.
Nombre Noir is so famous for so many reasons that it’s hard to know where to begin. It was the very first fragrance ever made by the visionary Serge Lutens, his introductory footsteps into the perfume world, albeit under the umbrella of Shiseido rather than his own name. That would come later, but so many of the famous Lutens olfactory signatures make their debut in Nombre Noir that it’s like following a map into the future. But the reasons why the fragrance is so mythical have little to do with Lutens himself and everything to do with an aggregation of olfactory, technical, and market-oriented factors. The fact that there is a whiff of Greek tragedy to the tale just adds to the mystique.
THE MAKING OF A LEGEND — COMPOSITION, COST, DISCONTINUATION & LUCA TURIN:
One of the reasons why Nombre Noir stood out was a technical one involving its composition. The fragrance was loaded with damascones, a synthesized element of rose oil with aromas of plums, violets, lipsticks, berries, rosy woods, wine, and some say even apples as well. They had been used in fragrances before Nombre Noir, but in small amounts. Serge Lutens directed Shiseido’s perfumer, Jean-Yves Leroy, to go to town with them, no matter what the normal rules were or the cost. The problem is that damascones are so fragile that they are said to decay and decompose upon exposure to air and light. As The Perfume Shrine explained in an excellent article on Nombre Noir:
Damascones are potent aromacemicals synthesized in the lab through a difficult procedure that is reflected in their price. Because of that and their diffusive odour profile they are usually used with restraint, except for cases when the perfumer wants to make a point, like in Poison with its exagerration of alpha and beta damascone or indeed in Nombre Noir. Alpha-damascone is rosy floral with a fruity aspect atop a camphorous note and winey nuances while beta-damascone has tobacco shades along with plummy sweetness. [¶] Alas their deterioration upon sunlight is another reason they are usually kept in minute quantities in perfume compositions. Except for Nombre Noir. And that was the death toll on it. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
The quantity of fragile damascones meant the purest and truest essence of the scent, its contours — indeed, the very scent that was intended — would be an ephemeral thing, a will o’ the wisp that would change the more the bottle was opened and used. How much more of a unicorn can you get than one which supposedly begins to die from its first breath of air? (For what it’s worth, there were a ton of obvious damascones in my sample of Nombre Noir which came from a bottle that is well used and loved, so I hardly think they disintegrate and disappear completely, no matter how much the bottle is aired out or used. Still, the way the technical experts talk about Nombre Noir’s damascones, I’m guessing they must have been on a completely different level when the bottle was first opened.)
The nature of the composition wasn’t the only evanescent one; the fragrance itself wasn’t long for this world. Shiseido released Nombre Noir in 1982, and problems seem to have arisen almost immediately after. Apparently, the expensive, light-sensitive rose damascones were matched by a prodigious quantity of expensive osmanthus extract, so much so that they shot up the production costs even further. From what I’ve read, Shiseido apparently lost money on every single bottle of Nombre Noir it sold. The ingredients were not the only reason why, however.
There was also the fragrance’s packaging. There, too, Serge Lutens seems to have spared no cost or effort. For those times, the packaging was simultaneously sleek, minimalistic, elaborate, and high-end with folds of silken origami surrounding the bottle. All of it was very expensive to produce, but the greatest problem was that many of the bottles leaked. I assume Shiseido was forced to take back the faulty bottles and/or refund the purchase price. Having that said, I know someone who has more than 3 bottles of Nombre Noir, a reader and friend, “Scentseater,” who generously shared a sample with me, and he’s never had a problem with any of his. But enough people did to make the leaking issue a serious annoyance and embarrassment for Shiseido on top of everything else.
Shiseido gave up and pulled the plug a few years after Nombre Noir’s release. Actually, they went much further than that. They didn’t merely discontinue Nombre Noir and wait for leftover stock to run out; they supposedly recalled all the bottles to Tokyo and then tried to pulverize it out of existence. One source I read stated that a bulldozer was used to crush the remaining bottles of Nombre Noir, and they seem to have meant a literal bulldozer, not a figurative one. The claim might stem from something said by Joseph Finder, the best-selling novelist (and a former CIA officer, by the way), about Shiseido using a steamroller to go over every last possible bottle. Immediately after saying that, he added that the perfumer, Jean-Yves Leroy, committed suicide not long after, implicitly connecting the two events.
I haven’t found corroboration for these claims elsewhere and, without them, my mind has difficulty accepting as fact such extreme, draconian measures as pulverizing steam rollers, let alone the Greek tragedy implied by the poor perfumer’s suicide. But one thing does seem certain: Shiseido concluded Nombre Noir was a lost cause. Some people point to the expensive, leaking bottles as the reason why but, to me, that isn’t the most logical answer. After all, Shiseido could have revamped the packaging. I don’t buy the damascones disintegration argument, either. The more likely reason for discontinuation, in my opinion, was that Shiseido was not recuperating its costs and was losing money on the scent. (In fact, I’d be surprised if Shiseido even sold much Nombre Nuit in its large home market to begin with, given Japanese cultural attitudes to fragrance and how greatly the composition departed from their preferences for fresh, clean, light, sheer things that clung silently to the skin.)
I don’t know when exactly Nombre Noir was discontinued and I can’t find a single online source that gives the precise year when it was pulled from production. One eBay seller says 1988 in the description to her decants, but I had always thought it was a year to two after its release, so circa 1984. (Luca Turin just responded to my query on the matter with a vague recollection of the same year, but he’s hazy on the exact dates). In any event, Nombre Noir would undoubtedly had some small cachet in the years that followed, thanks to its rather dramatic death, the nature of its materials and the admiration of some perfumistas, but what made it shoot into the stratosphere of legend was Luca Turin. He reverentially called it “one of the five great fragrances in the world,” seemingly in the annals of perfumery, and he publicly mourned its loss in Chandler Burr’s 2004 book, “The Emperor of Scent.” It changed everything. People flocked to eBay, and prices for what little stock remained after Shiseido’s purge went through the roof.
The fragrance’s rarity and its price have only grown since then. The Joseph Finder eBay clip from 2011 has a screenshot of an eBay listing for $399. Some weeks ago, a bottle of Nombre Noir eau de parfum on eBay was going for $800, and it was the sole bottle listed on all of eBay worldwide. This week, there is a bottle of the extrait, and the asking price is $1,999 for a mere 15 ml. All of this puts Nombre Noir in a whole other league than similarly heralded, discontinued vintage legends. Many of those were produced for a few decades, not destroyed after only a few years, so the possible quantities lurking about are greater and, consequently, their prices are not so stratospheric as to give one a nosebleed.
I try not to cover fragrances that are difficult to access, let alone those that amount to King Arthur’s Avalon and unicorn tears, but legends make me as curious as the next person. Even so, I would never have covered Nombre Noir if it weren’t for a reader, “Scentseater,” who has become a friend and for whom the fragrance is not just a passion, not just the fragrance that sent him down the rabbit hole, but also a deeply moving, emotional, and transportative experience that affects him like no other. He has a number of bottles, asked to send me a sample, and said he would love to see the fragrance through another person’s eyes. More importantly for me (and the dispositive factor), he said that he didn’t mind if I didn’t view it the same way or if I hated it. I had carte blanche to say whatever I truly thought; he would not be offended.
What I think is a mixed bag. Nombre Noir isn’t for me and, in all frankness, I don’t think it rises to the level of one of the five greatest fragrances in the world. Not at all. I found it to be an appealing fragrance that was beautifully crafted, intellectually interesting, technically deft, perfectly balanced, polished, smooth, and enjoyably rich but, even so, I was… underwhelmed.
There are a few reasons why. First, I’m not a passionate rose lover (quite to the contrary), and maybe you need to be in order to be really moved by this scent. Second, I tried it decades after its release when I was already jaded by other, similar fragrances that followed its template. Nombre Noir turns out to be quite a pioneer in a particular type of rose genre but, in 2016, that genre is such a well-beaten horse that my response is tepid. Third, let’s be fair, it’s difficult for many legends to live up to their hype; reality is often a letdown, not Mount Olympus. Finally, there is an issue of stylistic personal preferences. I tend to sit up for masterpieces of Wagnerian complexity and baroque grandeur, but Nombre Noir is largely a macro-lens focus on one key element: a perfect, dark rose presented with as much verisimilitude as possible but also one shrouded in mystery; a rose in all its changes throughout the day and night, in different lights, buffeted by different winds, its innate facets accentuated by a pitch-perfect calibration of brush strokes from other notes. That sort of thing has its own appeal, too, but it’s an issue of what moves a person most.
While I’m neither swayed nor impressed on a personal level, I think there is a lot to respect here on a technical and intellectual basis, as well as a lot which would appeal to others. First, Nombre Noir seems to have pioneered certain thematic trends that are now common in perfumery. The signature traits that one associates with Dior‘s Poison, Malle‘s Portrait of a Lady, Lutens’ own Feminité du Bois and his Rose de Nuit… they were already on full display in Nombre Noir years before. (Poison launched in 1985, Feminite du Bois in 1992, Rose de Nuit in 1993, and POAL in 2010, but Nombre Noir came out in 1982.) There is also, as I’ve just alluded to, a pitch-perfect mastery of notes, balance, smoothness, and cadence, all in the service of one goal: the portrait of a rose from top to bottom, from day to night then to sunrise. I’m sure it blew people out of the water back in 1982, especially if they were a rose lover. I think it’s bound to appeal to that same group today as well.Before I start on the olfactory description of the scent, let’s get back to the basics. Nombre Noir was released as an eau de parfum and a pure parfum. This review is for the eau de parfum. Serge Lutens directed its development in conjunction with Yusui Kumai, but it was composed by a professional nose, Jean-Yves Leroy. Nombre Noir was the only fragrance he ever made. According to Fragrantica, the note list is:
Top notes: aldehydes, bergamot, marjoram, coriander and rosewood. Heart: osmanthus, rose, geranium, jasmine, ylang-ylang, orris root, carnation and lily of the valley. Base: amber, musk, honey, sandalwood, vetiver, benzoin and tonka bean.
When reading that, keep in mind the unlisted damascones, their dominant role, and their many facets, particularly the plums and woods. In addition to the damascones, on my skin, there is also a strong sense of cedar and patchouli, and a whisper of spices, possibly cinnamon, and perhaps a tiny drop of cumin as well. I don’t know the extent to which those aromas indirectly result from the other notes, particularly the damascones, but I really am convinced there is actual cedar (one of Serge Lutens’ favourite materials in his early fragrances for his own brand) that goes unmentioned on the note list and quite likely a fair bit of patchouli as well.
Nombre Noir isn’t a fragrance that lends itself to easy analysis and breakdown for a few reasons. First, many of the 20 notes on that list work quietly in service of the central elements which are, primarily, the rose and then, much later on, the osmanthus. The secondary or tertiary notes are often subsumed within, sometimes mere glimmers that work to accentuate the central rose note to make it as nuanced and multi-faceted as possible. The second difficulty was that Nombre Noir manifested itself differently during its first few hours on my right arm versus my left. I applied roughly the same quantities, but some difference in my skin not only brought out different facets but also resulted in a very different vibe and feel. The basic gist and broad parameters were the same — a dark, sweet, fruity, and musky rose — but the specifics diverged enough to create very different visuals and associations.
Nombre Noir opens with a froth of effervescent, clean aldehydes fizzing over a plummy, lightly spiced, jammy, and honey-coated rose. A generous pinch of dried green herbs is sprinkled on top, their colour matched by a lacy frond of brighter green that springs up all around the flower from piquant, fuzzy, slightly bitter geranium leaves and woody-mossy vetiver.
Other elements dart like tiny fireflies all around. There is osmanthus that smells of fresh apricots, tart but also sweet, and bearing a touch of leatheriness deep, deep below. There is also jasmine that is bright, faintly musky, sweet, sparkling, and a bit citrusy, perhaps because Nombre Noir contains some hedione according to Luca Turin. Then, there is green, dewy muguet (lily of the valley) whose soapy cleanness parallels that of the aldehydes. The smallest of the fireflies is the bergamot, as fresh and bright as the jasmine, but much more imperceptible at first.
In the base, earthy, dark, rooty, and woody elements rustle, faint glimmers of cedar, rosewood, orris, patchouli, and vetiver. They’re more suggestions than strong, substantive notes but, even so, they contribute to the impression of a dark rose that is presented from top to bottom. It’s as though Serge Lutens sought to bottle every part of the flower that he’d plucked straight from a garden one morning, from the sparkling white light of the air above it, to the (muguet) dew on its petals, the honeyed, plummy, and jammy nectar seeping from its heart, the slightly bitter green leaves sprouting from its woody stem, and then the very earth in which its roots dig.
It doesn’t take long for Nombre Noir to change. Roughly 15 minutes in, the aldehydes soften and melt into the rose, while the muguet delicately opens its buds, releasing its own and very different sort of cleanness, a more floral, green-white, and soapy sort. At the same time, the lacy fringe of greenness turns into a thicket that is mossy, leafy, spicy, and filled with vetiver. 10 minutes after that, the cedar rises out of the base and expands exponentially, surrounding the rose, turning it as woody as it is plummy, jammy, honeyed, and flecked with greenness. The plums turn dark, like prunes, while the jamminess turns even thicker, like berried molasses in a way that is just like fruitchouli. The pinch of herbs disappears, but it’s replaced by a whisper of something that, once in a blue moon, resembles violets. I think they’re from the damascones rather than from the orris because they don’t bear a clear, distinct violet aroma and certainly nothing resembling orris’ make-up tonality. Then again, they’re oddly waxy at times, so who knows what the real source may be. In the background, rosewood weaves in and out, trailed by the bergamot, both of them providing a counterbalance of brightness and freshness to the dark shadows that are beginning to fall on the flower.
It’s not only a delicate dance but a very impressionistic play of elements, each one seemingly calibrated to accentuate the rose’s many innate characteristics, each one counterbalancing the next. Roses in nature are sweet, fruity, citrusy, bright, honeyed, green, woody, spicy, fresh, and clean. Each note in Nombre Noir intentionally brings out one part of that in order to recreate the truest rose possible; each note rises and falls to offset the others, keeping the balance to prevent one element from silencing the rest. For example, the surging greenness and woodiness is offset about 40 minutes in by a parallel surge in the jasmine and honey, adding warmth and sticky sweetness to the rose, ensuring that it is never dry, green, or too dark. It’s an echo of the elements that, three years later in 1985, Dior would emphasize in its Poison, but Nombre Noir is, in my opinion, significantly smoother, more carefully modulated, less bombastically cloyingly, and more gracefully elegant.
Yet, even if there is a careful balancing act, there is nevertheless a growing emphasis on some elements over others as Nombre Noir develops. At the end of the 1st hour and the start of the second, the rose is far woodier, spicier, and muskier than it is green, fresh, or citrusy. The cedar is unmistakable, calling to mind so many Lutens fragrances of the future, particularly when placed next to the dark, prune-like plums. I’d swear there was a pinch of cinnamon and an even tinier one of cumin mixed into the increasingly powerful accord. Just as palpable is the sense of earthiness that seems to engulf the base. It feels like patchouli layered with something else but, whatever the source, it’s evocative of dark, loamy soil, rumbling up from the flower’s roots to spill over onto its velvety petals. Right from the start, Nombre Noir had felt like a patchouli-fruity rose growing out of the earth, but the impression is tenfold now.
Nombre Noir doesn’t morph and twist like some of the Lutens bell jar masterpieces from one thing into something completely different. To the extent that Nombre Noir changes in the first six hours of its life, it’s more like a change in emphasis, as though the rose were swaying in different scented winds, in different locations, or at different times of the day. The 30 minutes were all about the freshness, cleanness, greenness, and sticky sweetness (floral, fruited, and honeyed) in morning daylight. The next 30 were about the growing greenness and woods, as the forest encroached and shadows fell. The second hour takes place fully within the cedar forest which disgorges its contents (and earth) as the darkness looms further. That darkness, nightfall if you will, falls around the middle of the second hour and lasts until almost the 8th hour.
It’s not a true “noir” and definitely not a total blackness or smoky eclipse but, rather, an impressionistic darkness that is midnight purple, a darkness that is still plummy and earthy but, now, also infused with muskiness, treacly leatheriness, balsamic resins, and quiet, soft smokiness. The osmanthus, cedar, and resins are undoubtedly responsible for much of that, particularly the osmanthus. When I smell my arm up close, it’s now wafting a smoky leatheriness laced with a black tea, Lapsang Souchong tonalities rather than mere apricots. From afar, though, the osmanthus is largely subsumed within the fragrance’s new mantle of midnight purple. The end result reminds me of Malle‘s Portrait of a Lady. Nombre Noir is spicier, woodier, darker, smoother, rounder, more balanced, better quality, richer, and more fluid on my skin (though I grant you that I seem to have tried a reformulated version of the Malle), but the two fragrances are related nonetheless.
Nombre Noir stays this way for quite a while but, gradually, in incremental steps, the emphasis begins to shift towards an impressionistic rose. By the middle of the 6th hour, everything about the rose itself is hazy, a shapeless blur of floral plumminess, berried fruitiness, spiciness, woodiness, and muskiness, but the interesting thing is how the elements around it are gradually gaining in clarity and focus, much like a photograph where the forefront is out-of-focus but the surroundings are well-defined. More and more, Nombre Noir is all about dark woods, patchouli, amber, and benzoin resin, softly layered with plummy rose and osmanthus leathery darkness, then wrapped up with tiny vapors of smoke. The jasmine has disappeared, and so has the osmanthus’ Lapsang Souchong tea aroma. The sense of dark earth is minor and quite muffled, but there are still microscopic glimmers of vetiverish greenness if I sniff my arm up close. The woods are a haze, but I can just make out the outlines of smoky cedar shot through with thin streaks of spicy sandalwood amidst the stronger, more dominant aroma of a dry, slightly peppery, woody-amber aromachemical. By the time the 7th hour ends and the 8th begins, everything feels fused together, and Nombre Noir has become a warm, dark blur of woody, musky, spicy, floral, fruity, leathery, resinous, and ambered notes.
The darkness falls away when the drydown begins, sunrise beckoning on the horizon during the first half of it, then blooming into a golden aura during the second. It’s during the drydown that I finally understand the comments about Nombre Noir having such huge quantities of osmanthus at exorbitant prices. Prior to that point, it had been either subsumed within the rose or had been even more elusive than that. Starting in the 8th hour (the 10th in one of my tests), it veers between being a layer of a larger, more generalized floral bouquet and being quite a powerful, distinct element in its own right.
In essence, Nombre Noir turns into a hazy mix of rose-ish plumminess and apricot-ish osmanthus floralcy that are dominated by a creamy, suede-like plushness and velvety quality, then covered with the faintest dusting of tonka’s vanillic powder and set against a diffuse backdrop of ambered warmth. The suede-like texture is gorgeous, and I suspect it stems from a mixture of the ylang with the osmanthus and perhaps a drop of vanilla. There is no distinct, real ylang note, though, no whiff of its spiced, banana-like, or floral custardy sweetness, but I think it is working indirectly from afar and is probably a big reason why the osmanthus’ leather undertones have turned so plush. At times, when I smell my arm up close, there is such a strong chord of creamy, musky, delicately spiced apricot suede that it makes me think of Serge Lutens’ Daim Blond. In Nombre Noir, though, the plummy damascones still linger, licking the edges, as do tendrils of something resinously dark and a ghostly vestige of soft woods. The composition is dark, yet also golden; sweet, but also dry and musky as well; floral, and, yet, so more than that.
Nombre Noir shifts again in the 12th hour when the final part of the drydown begins. The rose finally falls away, and not one vestige remains. In fact, there is no floralcy whatsoever, not even the osmanthus kind. Only its apricots remain, and they’re more of a suggestion that is detectable only if I burrow my nose deep into my arm. For the most part, the drydown is nothing more than golden, sweet, musky, lightly powdered, creamy plushness that has a soft whisper of apricots about it. It nuzzles the skin discreetly, sometimes feeling more like scented texture than fragrance, per se. In its final hours, all that’s left is musky sweetness.
Nombre Noir had astonishing longevity on my skin, average projection, and moderate sillage. Using several spritzes from a little atomiser equal to 2 sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opened with 4 inches of projection and about 4 inches of sillage. The latter grew to 5-6 inches after 30 minutes, then 6-8 at the 75-minute mark. Roughly 2.5 hours into Nombre Noir’s development, the projection dropped to 1.5 to 2 inches, while the sillage shrank to about 3. Nombre Noir was soft on my skin from the end of 5th hour onwards, but very strong, rich, and deep in scent when smelt up close. It turned into a skin scent about 6.25 hours into its development. I thought it about to die out during the 12th hour, but it lingered on for an astonishing amount of time after that, lasting into the 20th hour and, in some places, well beyond. During that time following the 12th hour, the scent was sometimes merely a ghostly whisper that clung to the skin and I had to stick my nose deep into my arm to detect it. At other times, however, to my surprise, no burrowing was needed whatsoever, and Nombre Noir was clearly there, even if it was a thin lacquer that was practically molded into the skin. In all my tests, Nombre Noir often felt more like an extrait than an eau de parfum, perhaps because it’s concentrated its power and richness over the last 30 years.
On my right arm, Nombre Noir developed quite differently during its first few hours, but the opening was particularly divergent, thanks to a surprisingly boozy, cognac note that engulfs the rose. It’s quickly joined by dark muskiness, dark woods, chewy prune-like plums, bronzed amber, and patchouli that not only wafts earthy notes but also a delicious chocolate aroma as well. A fringe of vetiver grows around the bouquet, while a tiny pinch of aldehydes floats up top. To my surprise, their fizz is a momentary thing that dissipates within mere minutes, melting into the rose to become a naturalistic cleanness.
There are other differences from Version 1 besides the short-lived aldehydes. Here, the notes develop more quickly because cedar appears within minutes, trailed by tendrils of something dark. There is no bergamot, no discernible muguet, but the muskiness surrounding the rose smells faintly of civet, although it is a fleeting thing that doesn’t last long. The fragrance is also much, much less sweet right off the bat. Even though the sweetness levels grow, the rose doesn’t have quiet the same degree of obvious honey and it’s not quite so thick with jam, either. It’s drier and darker. On top of that, it bears a metallic note at times, a sort of prickly thorniness. It doesn’t feel beefy or chewy in the way of other rich, sweet, dark roses, but more of a glittering, diffuse rosiness with thorns which drip plums, prunes, and cognac. The latter is no doubt a side-effect of the damascones interacting with osmanthus’ apricots and the amber.
The cumulative effect leads to very different visuals and impressions than Version 1. There is no sense of daylight because the aldehydes are so minimal and there is virtually no citrusy brightness. By the same token, there is no sense of a rose growing in nature because the green elements are so minor and soft. Everything this time around is about the earthy darkness right from the start. If you’ve ever watched The Tudors or a show set in medieval times, visualise the king’s bedroom in his cold castle where the walls are paneled in dark woods and decorated with iron or steel weapons, his four-posted bed is draped with dark velvets, as shadows flicker from the fireplace and candlelight over a goblet of booze. Here, the rose lies nestled in the heart of the king’s bed, wafting out its scent in unmistakable fashion and never actually hidden, and yet it feels shrouded in mystery nonetheless.
Nombre Noir changes quickly, from its notes to its vibe. After 15 minutes, the rose turns boozier, sweeter, muskier, and significantly plummier. It’s a more sensual rose, but there is an odd dichotomy at play, perhaps because surrounding notes feel even more carefully calibrated in this version. Something about the composition is paradoxical: sensual excess that’s been tightly controlled by iron restraints; wanton abandon juxtaposed next to haughty formality; easiness and lushness next to narrow structure; a clear focus that is somehow also shrouded. Perhaps it stems from the contrast between the richness of the individual notes, their tightly restrained nature vis-à-vis each other, and the exponentially darker feel of the opening. I don’t know and it’s difficult to explain. All I can say is that very little about this rose is like the one in Version 1’s early phases in its mood, tone, character, visuals, and feel — and I really like this one.
Nombre Noir continues to shift in its nuances as the first hour unfolds. The muskiness takes on a slightly animalic undertone that reminds me of Rose de Nuit. The jasmine turns indolic, while also being fresh at the same time. The thorns grow, as do the tendrils of smoke. There is a somewhat scratchy, occasionally peppery element in the base that suggests a woody-amber aromachemical, although it’s subtle. In contrast, the first signs of the osmanthus’ apricots are very clear. They emerge roughly 35 minutes into Nombre Noir’s development, which is significantly sooner than they did in Version 1, even though they are folded within the rose here as well, and only occasionally send out strong, distinct, and independent ripples.
If I had to sum up the development of Version 2, there would be two broad trends. First, there is more overlap between the stages, less separation and more fluidity. Second, the transitions happen more quickly; the main elements from one stage in Version 1 appear sooner in Version 2, while the secondary ones don’t last as long. For example, the green accords are significantly less pervasive and briefer in longevity. The vetiver is never distinct at all my skin. The smoke is, however, and it appears more quickly than it did in Version 1.
Another example is what happens at the end of the 3rd hour and the start of the 4th when the animalic, thorny, and prickly aspects disappear, the muskiness temporarily retreats to the background, and a profound plushness replaces it on center stage. It’s lightly sweetened and creamy, but it’s not like tonka, vanilla, suede, or velvety ylang. Instead, it feels like an amalgamation of things, the sum greater than its parts. It coats the osmanthus and, together, they create a creamy apricot velvetiness that runs under the rose like a texture. Interestingly, while there are noticeably more apricots in Version 2, there is less plumminess and significantly less woodiness and leatheriness. Speaking of the plums, in this version, they only last about 2 to 2.5 hours in a really distinct, clear-cut, unmistakable way; the apricots are not only much more powerful and more distinct, but they gradually take over as the rose’s second in command.
Version 2 is much simpler, blurrier, less nuanced, and more linear than Version 1, both up close and when I smell the scent from afar. At the end of the 5th hour, Nombre Noir basically feels like a dark apricot rose enveloped in musky, bronzed warmth. There are passing ripples of wood, smoke, leatheriness, earthiness, creaminess, and darkness, but they not only fluctuate in strength, they also feel quite intangible at times, like will o’ the wisps flickering just out of reach of one’s fingers. The flickers largely die out at the end of the 7th hour. Surprising, most of the rose slips away as well.
At that point, Nombre Noir turns into a sheer cloud of lightly powdered, slightly apricot-ish sweetness, muskiness, and plushness. It’s not creamy, per se, and it’s nothing like suede. It’s really nothing that I can pick apart at all. It’s simply a sweet, musky, bronzed plushness imbued with a touch of powder, an occasional undertone of something resembling apricots, and an intangible, ambiguous hint of rosiness. In its final hours, Nombre Noir is nothing more than sweet muskiness.
This version of Nombre Noir had slightly lower projection, sillage, and longevity, even though I really did my best to spritz roughly the same amount as I used in the test on my left arm. Nevertheless, due to vagaries of skin, Version 2 became a skin scent after 5 hours, as opposed to 6.25 hours with Version 1, and it was the 10th hour when it seemed close to death, not the 12th. The fragrance felt softer when taken as a whole. Even so, Nombre Noir still lasted about 18 hours, but I really had to burrow my nose into the skin to detect it after the 10th hour.
Unless you apply a lot of scent and/or have a sensitive nose, I’m guessing that most people will get 8-10 solid hours of Nombre Noir, wafting discreetly and quietly during the end part, and the rest will be up in the air, depending on each person’s individual skin. Please remember, though, that using an atomiser as I did increases a fragrance’s reach and sometimes helps with longevity, too. You are likely to have different results if you dab, especially if you don’t apply a fair amount.
Scentseater told me that the extrait is a little different. He said that: “the EdP and the extrait share the same core feeling, but the extrait is far darker, more ‘noir’ and really feels more like the perfume’s intended purpose.”
BOTTLE SIZES, DESIGN, BATCH CODES, & STICKERS:
I don’t think batch codes have much relevance in this particular case because Nombre Noir is not a fragrance that was in production long enough to have olfactory differences. Without multiple reformulated versions, there is no context to give the codes olfactory significance. “Scentseater” has 3 bottles of Nombre Noir EDP as well as numerous minis, and he said he could not detect any discernible differences between them. Plus, bottles of Nombre Noir are so rare that I doubt anyone will care what the code is on the bottle; if they want it and can afford it, they’ll buy it.
Nevertheless, for the sake of thoroughness and on the distant off-chance that the batch codes might matter to someone somewhere for reasons personal to them, I’ll share the codes that “Scentseater” kindly compiled for each concentration or version of Nombre Noir.
The EDP came in two bottle formats. The most common was a 60 ml octagonal shape made from clear glass. Scentseater says it is a splash bottle. However, Nombre Noir was also available in a long, black, opaque 60 ml atomiser. You can see it to the left in this photo by the eBay seller, “gidgetpup5,” next to the octagonal design:
For the octagonal Eau de Parfum, the codes on Scentseater’s bottles are: ZLA, ZJA, and ZBA. My sample of Nombre Noir, the scent that I’ve described to you here, comes from the one marked ZJA. However, the code on the sticker at the bottom of an EDP bottle used by “Gidgetpup5” does not start with “Z” at all. Its sticker has a tiny BBA on it.
Nombre Noir EDP also came in minis, again in clear glass and in an octagonal shape. Most of the bottles that I have seen on eBay are said to be 4 ml in quantity, but I came across an old listing in which the seller gave a 5 ml size. The codes for Scentseater’s minis are:
- BX1 (located on bottle bottom)
- 1DU? (located on bottle bottom)
- BBA (located on back sticker)
- AHB (located on back sticker)
The Extrait bottles were black and opaque, not clear glass, and they were usually either 7.5 ml or 15 ml size. They were obviously dab bottles as all extraits in small sizes are, not atomisers. The code on Scentseater’s bottle is ZRA, just like the one shown on the box in the photo below:
Shiseido is a Japanese company, so the language used for both the stickers on the bottom of the bottles and the markings on the box depended on the intended market. Some were in Japanese, others in English:Again, I have no idea what any of this signifies in terms of the actual scent or if there is any relevance at all, but the bottle size and format information should be of some use.
BUYING SAMPLES & RARE AVAILABLE BOTTLES:
It’s not difficult to experience and sample Nombre Noir so long as you’re willing to open your wallet wide. The 4 ml/5 ml mini bottles pop up on eBay sometimes, but your best bet are decanters. On eBay, “gidgetpup5” sells Nombre Noir EDP in 1 ml, 3 ml, and 5 ml sizes. Prices start at $20 for the 1 ml size. Surrender to Chance has the EDP as well, starting at $9.99 for a 1/4 ml vial, then $19.98 for a 1/2 ml, and $39.96 for 1 ml. At The Perfumed Court, prices start at $11.99 for a 1/4 ml vial, are $47.99 for a 1 ml vial, and go up from there. The eBay seller is obviously a better deal if you want 1 ml. Plus, she ships worldwide, and the price is included or free within the US.
If the samples are expensive, the actual bottles are obviously even more so due to their scarcity. On eBay, a worldwide search for Nombre Noir pulled up only 2 entries at the time of this post. One is the decant seller listed above, while the other is the 15 ml pure parfum with the $2,000 price tag that I mentioned earlier.
Etsy offers a few additional full bottle choices, and they’re different from what’s listed on eBay. A search for Nombre Noir on the entire site pulled up 2 listings with lower prices, comparatively speaking. There is a 60 ml black atomiser spray bottle of EDP for $632 and a 7.5 ml extrait bottle for $760. Both come from a Russian seller called “MyScent,” and he ships worldwide.
OTHER REVIEWS & FINAL THOUGHTS:
Some people are put off by fragrances that are so difficult or expensive to obtain that they might as well be completely out of reach. I completely understand and sympathize. Sometimes, I feel the same way, wondering what’s the point of trying them, even in sample form.
In this case, though, I really think Nombre Noir is worth testing. Its mythical status is one reason why, but not the only one. If you are a fan of Oncle Serge, it’s fascinating to see echoes of the fragrances that he would later launch under his own name, like Rose de Nuit (which has a noticeable similarity in profile, style, and notes), Feminite du Bois, Daim Blond, and others. His beloved plum-cedar combination that runs like a signature through so many of his creations, it’s here. His tendency to cast his flowers in darkness, turn them into velvet, imbue them with musks or smoke — that’s here as well. There is none of the bombast of Dior’s Poison, but all of the sensuality that Malle intended for his POAL, except Lutens did it better, in my opinion. Loads better.
I think the key to your enjoyment of Nombre Noir is to keep your expectations low. As I mentioned earlier, legends rarely live up to their hype, and particularly not when they’re writ large as “the” best perfume in the world, singular, by a famous author, let alone when someone like Luca Turin calls it one of the five best fragrances, seemingly in the annals of perfumery. How can anything live up to such stratospheric accolades and prose when scent is, by its very nature, so incredibly subjective?
The combination of impossibly high expectations, anticlimactic disappointment, and nosebleed prices leaves some people less than enthused about Nombre Noir. While most bloggers wax rhapsodic about it, I’ve read more than a few comments or replies where the person essentially shrugs nonchalantly. “It’s nice, but….” or “It’s okay, but I preferred Rose de Nuit…” The number of gushing fans exceeds the number of tactful yawners, but the latter exist nonetheless wherever you read about Nombre Noir.
You can see it on Fragrantica, too. One poster, “rumtumtugger,” was tepid in his praise and largely indifferent to the scent as a whole, writing that Nombre Noir was nice but “no revelation.” To him, it was merely a classical chypre with some similarity to modern Mitsouko:
To my nose Nombre Noir is a classical Chypre very much in the style of non-vintage Mitsuko: not overly adehydic, the chypre theme tamed with lactones, a nice gesamtkunstwerk. To that comes a balanced rosy top note, which is not very fluorescent (damscones) but not sweet (phenylethanol) or fatty-green (rose oxide) either. Unfortunately it doesn’t last, so that you end up with some kind of Mitsuko drydown.
So it is indeed a nice fragrance, but to me it was no revelation – at least not this sample.
For other Fragrantica posters, however, Nombre Noir was utterly magical. I’ll let you read the full reviews for yourself and only quote tiny snippets from them here:
- “Nombre Noir lives up to its fame…and is superior to any perfume that I sniffed.”
- “This is indeed a stunning perfume. […] Is it the best perfume I have ever had the fortune to smell? Well, no, don’t believe the hype but it’s pretty close to perfume nirvana.”
- ” I have smelled over thousand fragrances and not one has come close to it. […] compared to overpriced junk today, from brands such as Roja Dove etc., the one ml of Nombre Noir is even worth at $1,000[.]”
I didn’t read any Fragrantica or blog reviews of Nombre Noir before testing it, tried to put its reputation out of my mind, and did my very best not to expect The Second Coming, but, even so, I confess I was still underwhelmed the first time around. Perhaps things like mythic status linger in one’s mind and are impossible to truly shake off, but I think the main reason is that I’m not a die-hard rose fan. In fact, roses are close to the bottom of the long list of flowers I like in perfumery, second to last, so the chances of my being swept off my feet by a rose-centric composition are slim. They become even slimmer when the rose-driven fragrance is a macro close-up rather than a sweeping landscape panorama with symphonic scope.
That said, once I admitted to myself that Nombre Noir wasn’t a scent that would trigger the Rapture (for me) and once when I approached it as any old fragrance, I enjoyed the experience. The medieval, mysterious, shadowed rose in the early stage of Version 2 fascinated me, and I absolutely loved the creamy apricot suede in Version 1’s drydown. From my discussions with Scentseater as well as what I’ve heard from some other people, I have the impression that Nombre Noir is one of those fragrances that grows in appeal the more you test it.
If you’ve never tried Nombre Noir but you adore Serge Lutens or any of the fragrances mentioned here, I strongly encourage you to give it a test and see what you think. At the very least, you can say that you’ve tried one of the perfume world’s greatest legends. If you are a lucky owner of Nombre Noir, congratulations on capturing one of the rarest unicorns around! I’m sure it smells wonderful on you.
Disclosure: My sample was kindly and generously provided by “Scentseater.” I would like to thank him not only for that, but also for his enormous help with much of the information on the bottle design, packaging, batch codes, and sizing as well as some of the background information on Nombre Noir’s discontinuation. My opinions, however, are all my own.