A Surge of Serge: Serge Lutens Tarab, L’Incendiaire et Bourreau des Fleurs

As long-time readers (both of you) know, I was, and am, a long time Uncle Serge Fanboy. I have and love several of the house’s scents and a few of them I hope never to be without. Back in the day I would wait for the new releases in the way that Apple devotees (yeah, one of those too..) would wait for the next time Steve Jobs uttered “Oh, one more thing…”

Eventually however, much as I moved away from hanging on every new iIntroduction, I kind of got lost in the product cycle coming from the House of Lutens. I always thought that being locked into the idea of bi-yearly releases of two exports and two exclusives was a trap- not to be facile, but there’s only so much you can do with prunes before starting to get a little repetitive. I stayed through the many Eaux, but sort of lost the thread when he introduced his Cadillac line with Cadillac prices. The couple I sniffed were very good mind you, but well over my price threshold at $600+.

So I was distracted by something shiny. That and Barney’s (the main pusher of all things Serge here on the West Coast) went belly up and the pandemic came: sniffing anything was out and there was no place to sample surf.

Well, no place except online decanters.

Now for a bit of history: Way back in the Aughts, there were these decanters. They were on this new thing eBay, and they would, for a price, sell you a bit of their stash. It was a good deal for everyone: If you didn’t have a handy Saks or Neiman’s or never went to Paris (where at the time Lutens only sold the “exclusives” I.E. the good ones) Or London, Tokyo, or Houston (where Le Labo sold their “city exclusives”) these people would sell you a bit of them in various sizes. It was even a good deal for retailers: If you liked that sample of something that was available at Saks or Neimans you might just be likely to buy a bottle at retail rather than getting it in spritzes. Decanters made a little money, you got your Musc 25 or Borneo 1834 or new Tom Ford and everybody was happy.

Until we weren’t.

I actually don’t know what happened, whether it was some rights issue or whatever but one day Bam! eBay stopped allowing decants. Oddly, they still allowed you to see the used clothing, books, records, and the rest: just not a few MLs of that bottle of only-available-in-New-Hebrides l’Air de Poitrine or your great Aunt Susie’s half-full bottle of vintage Tarantula’s Kiss. I was not privy to the reasoning behind the decision, just dealt with the aftermath, So I just thought I’d really have to swim to Paris if I wanted to try the next Lutens exclusive, and my distance swimming days pretty much ended with no longer being a member of Northampton Country Club and the onset of my partying yoof. 

In any case, decanters decided to say to heck with eBay and just create their own sites to sell off their own possession: like a jumble sale. With Caron instead of crockery. Whew! Diana Nyad would breathe easier knowing I was not out there in training for the EuroSniffa 2001 Swim-to-Retail-palooza.

Which is a long and winding way to pad out this post before getting to the three Uncle Serge’s I have never tried before, and got from Surrender to Chance.

L’Incendiaire (The Arsonist) was one of the first ones released in the “Gold Label” line and I remember smelling it at Barneys and being of two minds about it. I liked it, but not enough to pop for a bottle and do low, easy payments for the next year to clear it. Smelling it again I still have the same reaction to it: I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s also kind of a trip down memory lane of a bunch of other Lutens that I have and love, including Serge Noire and any of the stewed fruits, with an added oud note. It’s obviously stronger; smelling these and then others was somewhat akin to smelling things after visiting the JAR boutique at Bergdorfs- everything subsequently felt a little… thin. Kafkaesque said it best in writing that it was like a “mix tape” of Serge through the years. They also mention that SL had sanded down the rough edges of those other fragrances to create this one (I suppose it would be unwearable if they didn’t) but really didn’t put any rough edges of its own in, and I like SL’s rough edges. I suppose if I had not bought the ones that I had I might be able to justify a purchase of this and be quite happy with it’s rich beauty. So far no go.

Tarab is a shocker. Created by Christopher Sheldrake (long time nose for Uncle Serge) and featuring rose and oud, you would think that this would be the ultimate in Sheldrake/Lutens fireworks: opening perhaps with the smell of burning buildings and pork rinds or ginger beer and freshly lain asphalt but the opening fireworks here is.. quiet. In answer to every oud that shouts itself hoarse from the rooftops, this one merely calmly whispers. The oud is paired with one of those big, red, jammy roses that you just want to ram your face into, but again, oddly muted. Tarab apparently means “trance” and that fits the effect of the scent. It kind of hides around the corner, defying being smelled straight-on, peeping out at unexpected moments. I can see where this one would flummox both devotees of Uncle Serge and people who equate expensive with big: It does smell expensive and rich, when you get it. It just isn’t going to come up and grab you by the, er, lapels.

Bourreau des Fleurs grabs you by the lapels. It opens sweet: like licorice being boiled in maple syrup. Now reading that you would think that would have me heading for the hills, and on paper it should. Licorice is not my favorite thing to smell (or eat, for that matter) and maple syrup I prefer on pancakes. But then I am reminded that there are other scents with those ingredients (AG Sables for instance) that I adore, sooo.. Bourreau translates into “executioner” (while Boourreau de Fleurs translates into “flower hanger”) on one of those handy dandy translators. Executioner fits here because if there were flowers involved it was “off with their heads” a while ago. If L’Inceniaire references other SL’s Bourreau referneces just certain stages of them and stays comfortably there. After the boiling sap opening it goes into the stewed fruits and wood territory that Lutens seems to own the way Cadillac owned tail fins. The banked woods that feed the fire come forward and the immortelle binds it in a warm blanket while the licorice becomes resiny. Of these three, Bourreau des Fleurs is perhaps the most recognizably Lutens: it both amps up and pares down what a long-time fan expects in one of the house’s scents.

Of these three the one that grabbed me was the one that on paper at least was the one that I would least expect to be grabbed by: Tarab. the others are undeniably good and in a world where I had Powerball winnings and a walk-in wine cellar to use as perfume storage I would happily get them all. As it is, I don’t see myself falling. Yet.

Tarab is $400 for 75ML in the gold bell jar at the Lutens Site. Bourreau des Fleurs is listed as a “Last Chance” on the SL website at $480 down from $600. so get it while you can. L’Incendiaire is listed as “Be Alerted” soo. My samples were from Surrender to Chance. Photo is mine.


  • furriner says:

    Great review! I love Bourreau des Fleurs. Everyone kind of ignored it when it came out. The best Serge of recent years. The best of the Gold Label. I snagged a bottle before Barneys went away and I was still employed. On me it’s scorched wood. Le participe passé is somewhat similar.

  • ElizaC says:

    How does Borreau des Fleurs compare to Le Participe Passé? I am a huge immortelle fan!

  • Alityke says:

    Interesting that many of the non export lines are popping up on the grey market. I got a bell jar of Boxeuses from a European discounter with UK shipping at a very good discount. There were others at the time but I’m waiting for Sarrasins & Rose de Nuit to pop up somewhere in my price range.
    I thought Uncle Serge went off the boil when there was the big ol’ bottle changes/IFRA compliant reformulations. There seemed to be a run of releases to which I just went ‘meh’. Or have I just got cynical?

    • Tom says:

      No, I think there were a bunch of releases that I found “meh” and a couple I really didn’t like. But I always thought that being locked in to having new releases every six months was foolish after you have a complete line. Special sizes, special bottles, ancillaries, whatever, but don’t make it so that you have 47 different scents with 4 more coming in 12 months..

  • Musette says:

    Lordt… Uncle Serge does love a stewed fruit, doesn’t he? Alas, I never could get behind those Lutens, though I was willing, for awhile, to harvest and sell an enemy’s organs for a bell jar of De Profundis (the chrysanthemum one) precisely because it wasn’t stewed fruit.

    Probably still willing to harvest and sell those organs, though…


    • Tom says:

      Yeah, but that’s just entertainment..

      I like a couple of the stewed fruit ones but needn’t be a completist..

  • Dina C. says:

    I’d love to visit the Serge Lutens mothership, too, some day. I own a handful of bottles but I seem drawn to the ones that are not very Lutensian. No dried fruit or medicinal tinctures or stewed fruit stuff. Still, I loved reading your essay, Tom, and all your brilliant descriptions! I haven’t encountered any of these three in the wild.

    • Tom says:

      There are quite a few Serge’s out there, aren’t there. As much as I love the idea of seeing the sights in Paris, I’d be salivating over the shopping..

  • cinnamon says:

    Love that: walk in wine cellar for perfume storage. I’m afraid I’m not overwhelmed by descriptions of any of these. But who know, maybe I’d be bowled over smelling in person. The last Serge that got me was Fille en Aiguilles. I am plotting a long weekend in Paris at some point reasonably soon. I’ve never been to the Palais Royale shop and this needs to be remedied.

    • Tom says:

      I would love to be able to see the Palais. I’ve never been out of the States. At this rate the closest I’ll get to Paris is getting a croissant at the corner market. Oh well..

      • cinnamon says:

        Well, if it’s any consolation (it probably isn’t) I can no longer fly so getting to Paris from where I live means two trains and the Tube — around 6 hours total. So almost the same time as if one flew from the east coast of the US (which you wouldn’t). I actually like the stewed fruit sometimes. I own two SLs: Arabie and Rose de Nuit. I had a half bottle (from a split) of MKK but it disappeared and I don’t know when or where to.

        • Tom says:

          I like some of the stewed fruits as well.

          I hate to fly because it’s a giant pain (getting to the airport 3 hours early, strip searches by people who aren’t even cute, planes filled with psychotic Karens and Chads who decide to melt down mid flight, bad food, etc.) Were it cheaper, or only somewhat slower (say, a day) from LA to NY by train I would do it. If it’s Las Vegas or Phoenix or even SF I would drive.

  • Tara C says:

    I bought L’Incendiaire for half price (still ridiculous) on Fragrancenet then proceeded to forget I owned it and never wore it. I do like it but never think to wear it. Bourreau de Fleurs I sniffed and liked as well, but too $$$. Haven’t run across Tarab and not an oud/rose fan, but glad to hear it’s not aggressive. The bottle is lovely.

    • Tom says:

      I think I saw that on Fragrancenet but didn’t go for it (just didn’t need it) I think I am in a Serge Holding pattern: not done with them, but if I’m going to spend I will re-buy ones I have and don’t want to run out of.