Polianthes tuberosa is a plant that doesn’t grow in Europe. It’s not an ingredient you can see in its natural form, smell the flower and be able to recognize the note in a perfume. However it is one of the easiest notes to pin down. Once you’ve smelled a tuberose fragrance you know exactly what it is all about. If ever a flower had the power to smell threatening this is tuberose. It smells pink, fleshy and narcotic. And so is its presence in a fragrance. One of the first tuberose scents I hunted down to pin this note was Carnal Flower. And there it was: the flesh eating flower shouting and screeching like a middle aged socialite entering the room dressed impeccably and botoxed excessively, smiling coldly and yelling: “Dahhhling!”. It felt sticky, cloying, buttery and cold. I tried other ones like Fracas and it was a vast improvement in my relationship with the dreaded flower which smells like this but surprisingly looks like this. For some strange reason I was not giving up on it though. I needed to try one more legendary tuberose, Tubéreuse Criminelle. Which was not cheap nor easy because this is an exclusive to the Palais Royal boutique.
It came in a tiny vial. How could this tiny vial pack such a strong punch? The opening is like a mistake: pure Vicks Vaporub.What the hell has camphor and eucalyptus got to do with tuberose? Was uncle Serge having a dementia crisis back in 1999 when he released this? I enjoy camphor in a perfume but I couldn’t see the connection between this and the heady floral note. The astringent opening lasts a good twenty minutes on me coming off as a most masculine scent, something rarely attributed to a tuberose fragrance. And then slowly magic starts to happen… The pristine little white flower starts cutting through the cool, green fumes of eucalyptus. Cream and flowers fill the gaps and grow stronger. Tuberose has arrived! It takes several wearings however to analyse the genius of this composition. It is not only the obvious contradicting top notes that Sheldrake knows so well how to play with. He has done this before beautifully in Mandarine Mandarin. The true genius is in the way Serge Lutens treats florals. He does not rely on the actual extract of the flower to convey the beauty of it. He deconstructs it into tiny fragments of petals and uses bits and pieces from other ingredients to highlight the essence of the flower, the platonic idea of what this flower is. He has done it exquisitely with jasmine in Sarrasins and more controversially in Vitriol d’Oelliet. Quite interestingly there is also A la Nuit which serves as a testament of how a perfumer/artistic director duo can work on a single flower to create two polar opposites in terms of mood and impact. In Tubéreuse Criminelle the fleshiness of tuberose is integrated in the creaminess of orange blossom and the more effervescent floral aspect of it is studded with other white florals, like hyacinth and jasmine. The end result is a “connect the dots” image: it is tuberose but every single aspect of the flower is broken down and accented by another ingredient. The initial astringent, bitter veil of top notes serves as a harness to the headiness of the flower and stays as an undercurrent throughout the development. Maybe it is not so much the top notes that persist through the drydown but the incredible impact of the opening that stays etched to the nose like a watermark. Tubéreuse Criminelle is one of those rare fragrances that a sheer veil of topnotes explodes in the opening and by some magical way totally blocks much heavier notes that only become apparent in the drydown. For a not so brief time a screen manages to hide a spotlight. I have seen this happening in Arpege and Goti Black Essence.
After twelve years in production Tubéreuse Criminelle is now available in the export line and this is something not to be missed. It can open up new territory for tuberose lovers and it can conciliate tuberose haters with an ingredient larger than life. It is the only tuberose scent that I can wear as a man and it has the femininity of Joan of Arc: innocent, subversive and vestigial. More Diana than Venus.
The Freudian footnote: I was always baffled by my persistence to find a tuberose scent to like. I just wouldn’t give up. Last September with my mother’s birthday coming, I came across the original Chloe by Karl Lagerfeld which I remembered my mother wearing for years and is now discontinued so I bought it for her. I couldn’t remember what it smelled like but I remember myself going to the shops back then to get her a bottle of perfume which had a very beautiful glass top. Back then it was a present from my father and I just ran the errand. While I was waiting for the package to arrive I did a little research only to find out that this was a huge tuberose fragrance. It was a revelation for me that the same way one needs to go through a process to come to terms with their mother, I had to persist and look for a way to come to terms with a floral note that had probably marked my childhood.
Notes from Fragrantica: jasmine, orange blossom, hyacinth, tuberose, nutmeg, clove, styrax, musk and vanilla
Notes from my nose: Vicks VapoRub, tuberose, orange blossom, white flowers