Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.
Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau, which translates from French as “play on skin” or games “involving skin,” certainly engages in plenty of olfactory tricks. Christopher Sheldrake and Serge Lutens have never been shy about exploring difficult notes. I still marvel at the technical genius of La Myrrhe, in which a traditionally heavy, unctious and dense note of myrrhe seems effervescent and luminous. Or the harsh, diesel fuel note of methyl benzoate in Tubéreuse Criminelle that makes the white tuberose appear even fresher and brighter. In Jeux de Peau, the notes that are pushed to the point of discomfort are the caramelized, charred accords that evoke toasted bread.
Pyrazines and their derivates are quite common aromatic compounds that give flavor to a wide range of foods such as bread, nuts, popcorn, coffee, chocolate, meat and even white wines. While by themselves that they smell vegetal and peanut-like, when paired with certain dark notes, the effect becomes toasted and rich. In fragrances, they are also commonly used to give a delicious nuance, but their usage is generally minimal, a bare trace to tease the senses. Some of the most vivid nutty-toasty pyrazine notes can be found in fragrances like L’Artisan’s Bois Farine and Thierry Mugler Angel Men, while in Ormonde Jayne Champaca, the lighter acetyl pyrazine notes create the illusion of basmati rice. Jeux de Peau goes much further, however, with the toasty concept. In small doses, pyrazines are delicious and appetizing; in large doses the effect can be quite the opposite. In Jeux de Peau, Sheldrake goes for an effect that is dark, caramelized, roasted and almost burnt, which is enough to be challenging but still strangely fascinating.
The initial impression is that of crunchy, green anise and metallic notes which are paired with the maple syrup sweetness of immortelle. Together, they make a fleeting vision of green celery sticks before the green freshness melts into the savory spicy darkness. Jeux de Peaux is built around sandalwood and amber notes, with the violet-tinged cedarwood giving an extra dimension. The bread in Jeux de Peau is not a crisp, airy baguette, but a buttery croissant. There are elements in the composition that anyone familiar with Lutens’s aesthetic would recognize at once–incense, dark ambers, spices and vanilla redolent balsams. However, some elements are used in a very novel manner.
Just as you are ready to consider Jeux de Peau in the same category as the sweet, balsamic Santal Blanc, it shows a surprising facet of apricots and cream. The brightness of osmanthus and sweet milky notes seem to dominate the dark woody-incense accord, but contrary to expectations, the fruity notes do not make it lighter. The fruits of Jeux de Peau are quite candied and in combination with the toasty, caramel notes, the illusion is that of an apricot tart or perhaps baked honey glazed figs. Given all of these gourmand effects, the polished elegance of the sandalwood and amber base comes as another surprising twist. The savory note of immortelle and the toasted notes are present throughout, albeit softer in the drydown.
While Jeux de Peau is a very original fragrance that explores the territory of dark, woody gourmand in a fascinating manner, it is far from being a crowd pleaser. I feel that the intent above all is to present the familiar–the simplicity of toast and jam–in a new way. As such, it succeeds in being both different and challenging to wear. I find that the combination of rich buttery notes, charred wood and sweet balsamic accords gives it a dense, opaque quality. Denyse described Jeux de Peau as having gravitas in her review, with which I agree. It has a lot of character and a very strong signature, and as I wear it, I am impressed by its tenacity and diffusion. Like most Lutens fragrances, Jeux de Peau is equally suitable for men and women and despite the rich notes, it is not a sugary gourmand. I would not pick it for a romantic dinner or a visit to the theater, but as a companion on blisteringly cold days, it is alluring. I think that those who enjoyed the dark opulence of Chypre Rouge will find Jeux de Peau to be in the same league. Interesting, uncompromising, in the best of Lutens’s traditions.
Jeux de Peau is part of the export line and is now available in France. In the US, it is going to be available from Aedes and Barney’s New York later this month or in March. On similar ideas: Chypre Rouge, Santal Blanc and as my friend Véronique reminds me, Le Feu d’Issey Miyake, which also explored toasty bread and creamy wood notes.
Sample: my own acquisition