"An old flame" By Luca Turin
One day in 1982 there appeared out of nowhere, on the perfume floor of my local Galeries Lafayette, a shining black monolith displaying a new perfume called Nombre Noir, made by Shiseido and signed SL, the initials of its mysterious creator Serge Lutens. I asked to smell it and my life was altered forever. Had this perfume spoken, as objects do all the time in Alice in Wonderland and less frequently in reality, it would not have said: "Give me to your girlfriend" but" Ditch her now and run off with me". In the event, I started a discreet ménage à trois. When a few years later we split up, the perfume stayed with her. By then Nombre Noir had vanished, having earned the then-rare distinction of being found allergenic and subsequently banned.
I spent the next decade looking for it in widening circles, first scouring old perfumeries, then asking other collectors, then trying specialist stores (the biggest one is at the intersection of I-95 and 270 in Eastern North Carolina), finally the Web, all to no avail. Last year, during a drunken dinner with a fellow perfume journalist, it emerged that she had on her shelf a full atomizer of the eau de toilette and did not think much of it. She offered to trade it against something in my possession which she had always wanted, a pristine ounce of Coty’s Chypre, not the 1917 marvel but a passable 1960’s version. We swapped obsessions, and I was at last able to gaze again upon that wonderful face.
Nostalgic encounters are fraught with danger. Nombre Noir was still beautiful, God knows, and I could see what I had loved, a sort of playful fierceness unequalled in fragrance before or since, but I was no longer in thrall. Egged on by the cruelty that makes us dismember what we cannot truly love, I sent it off for analysis. When I read the list of ingredients with their proportions, I felt as Röntgen must have done when he first saw the bones in his wife’s hand: no longer the beautiful, but the sublime. At Nombre Noir’s core, a quartet of resplendent woody-rosy damascones, synthetics first found in rose oil forty years ago. They break down in sunlight, hence the nastiness. But the secret was a huge slug of hedione, a quiet, unassuming chemical that no-one noticed until Edmond Roudnitska showed with Eau Sauvage (1966) that its magic kiss could put back the dew on dry flowers. Knowledge may be power, but power is not love.