Tubéreuse Criminelle: criminally genius and a Freudian footnote

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

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

42 comments

  1. Excellent review, thank you!
    I love the connect-the-dots image.
    I absolutely agree with your impressions of this complex and complicated fragrance.

  2. Dear MOS, this is an absolute joy. I also enjoyed reading this article and the Freudian comment is really true. I read once in a French magazine, an interview with a psychologist and she was saying that one has to options when it comes to fragrance : to go with Mom’s taste or to go against it. In my case I go with my Mom’s. She always enjoyed Chypres and so do I. We different in many things and we are not exactly the best buddies, in fact, my 02 other sisters have a better relationship with her, but somehow a lot of my taste is my Mom’s.
    As per tuberose – I like this flower a lot as I like all white ones. But since my husband thinks it smells like products to wash laundry, so I try to avoid pure tuberoses. I enjoyed Mona’s very much.
    I also have this thing with SL – not all fragrances of the line have a finishing IMO, it lacks the rounding up, the final piece of the puzzle – I think I told you that already.
    I also like the fact that tuberose sometimes smells “plastic” or pink like you say – I don’t know…it is hard to describe – a bit overwhelming and too sweet.
    XXX

  3. The Freudian footnote is so true. I remember that I loved Gio by Giorgio Armani in the 1990s and last year during my “tuberose phase” I found out that it was a tuberose created by Francoise Caron.

    Tubereuse Criminelle is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hide thing. So cruel in the opening, so beautiful in the heart and base. Agree completely with the Vicks Vaporub and want to add some rubber, moth balls and Juicy Fruit chewinggum ;-)

    • Funny you mention rubber, Lena. I smell rubber in Carnal Flower. Those exotic flowers are really strange…
      Isn’t it strange that none of the notes listed in Fragrantica (as official as one can get with Serge Lutens notes) can be accused of the camphor/eucalyptus opening?
      A perfume that I think is very close to TC in terms of overall impression is Breath of God by Lush. It lists neroli instead of tuberose but they feel so close.

  4. An excellent review of one of my all time favourite perfumes.

    Do you find that TC’s longevity is somewhat lacklustre? At times I wish it could be a bit louder for longer.

    • In all honesty, all SL perfumes have a huge, astonishing opening but in reality they have a quite average longevity and a less than average projection. It is a shortcoming that I have come to terms with and accepted.

  5. Saif

    Lovely review. So lively.
    I , like you , tried so hard to find a representation of tuberose that appealed to me. Carnal Flower is nice. But not on me, on my wife. I couldn’t stand other tuberose fragrances. I love TC. It’s so different. So unique. So Serge Lutens.

  6. I love tuberose so, so much that it’s actually difficult for me to tell myself “no, you don’t need to spend more money on another one.” To me, the best thing about Tubereuse Criminelle is the way its sharp, mentholated opening does indeed seem to accentuate how soft and silky this particular tuberose’s petals are when the mists of that icy blast have parted, so to speak. It’s a great tuberose to wear on a hot day when you want to cool off. So glad to hear that you found a tuberose fragrance to love. (And now I’m going off and try not to cry about what you said about Carnal Flower…sniff, sniff). :)

    • I am sorry I badmouthed your favorite Suzanne…. I don’t know, maybe I had my expectations built so high by the name itself, the association with Candice Bergen, the fact that so many people referred to it as a “masculine” tuberose. Smelling it was one of the most anticlimactic experiences of my perfume life. And to top everything up, the middle aged socialite does exist and actually wears it! I ‘ve met her! I am sure you wear it a lot more gracefully.
      Histoires de Parfums Tuberose 3 is another one that I like a lot. Any other suggestions from a tuberose aficionado?

      • Christos, have you tried Olivia Giacobetti’s Vamp a NY for the company Honore de Pres? Because it seems to me that you really have an appreciation for oddly juxtaposed notes (correct me if I’m wrong), and I think you would enjoy the strange rub between the resinous balsams in Vamp and the vanillic tuberose. I also think you might like it because tuberose assumes a more submissive role in the fragrance, at least to my nose.

        A couple more you might like: as someone who enjoys cooking, I think you might like Mandy Aftel’s Cepes & Tuberose (and if you would like, I would be happy to send you my samples, as I’m not certain I will get around to writing about it or could do it proper justice, as it’s a little too light for my tastes); and the second one, just for the lighthearted joyousness of it, is L’Artisan Parfumeur’s La Chasse aux Papillons.

  7. Even though I do not like a tuberose I ran to the store to try Tubereuse Criminelle as soon as it became available… (sigh) The courage left me right after sniffing that Vicks VapoRub from a blotter. I did smell a tuberose later from the paper and didn’t wish it was on my skin.

    I do not know why I keep going back to that note. I feel very certain I won’t suddenly fall in love with it. I think I hope to learn to tolerate it better.

    • Undina maybe there is some sort of Freudian association for you in tuberose too. As I wrote in my comment to Suzanne, Histoires de Parfums Tubereuse 3 is one for the unappreciative I think.

  8. Dear friend, I enjoyed your review as always, although tuberose fails to enter even my top 20 notes list. The reason lies between its superpower floral character (in “criminal” doses this little flower can transform an ambitious perfumery creation into a single note fragrance) and the instant reaction of my mind to relate it with neroli (which I hate as a single note) every time I detect it in a scent. The best part of TC for me is the mentholated, camphoraceous opening. It is right there were someone gets the message that complexity is the middle name of TC. Only 5 minutes later you realize that the remaining journey is solely paved with tiny white petals leaving room only for the SL musk base. Mandarine Mandarin follows a different path : fully oriental, complex and different. Honest from top to base. TC is more like a magic trick : once the girl’s parts are reassembled, you realize you have been fooled again… ha ha ha

  9. I can tell you had fun writing up this one : ) Fantastic review. Coincidentally I wore TC to work yesterday. I love it as a mutant floral. So exquisite, yet so ugly. I wonderful conundrum. I was sad to read tuberose doesn’t grow in Europe. They are coming into season here in Australia, although they are increasingly hard to find in our florists.

    • I certainly did! It was many little things, our discussion after your review of TC (by the way, i missed your last comment there, I will reply now), TC going international, the Chloe incident, all these things were building up beautifully and in the end I really found myself not being able to stop writing about it! LOL

      A friend who read my post sent me an email and she told me that you can try and cultivate tuberose in Europe. I have the opposite of a green thumb but I am really tempted to order some bulbs and give it a try!

      • Nice! Good luck with the gardening. I too have a terrible habit of killing any plant life I try to cultivate. I was also thinking of collecting a small number of flowers and having a go at some enfleurage at home…..Another thing on Christmas activity list : )

        Thanks for the Chloe reference. I haven’t sampled it and will try and find a bottle. My only memory of Chloe was in high school when many girls were wearing Chloe Narcisse.

  10. I love this description: “pink, fleshy and narcotic.” I have not tried Tubereuse Criminelle, but since I do like menthol and camphor smells in perfume, I should.

  11. GeM

    is it going export?? that’s great! Hi, Christos! Coming from ScentsOfSelf to subscribe!
    I can’t miss the smell of a serge lutens fan!

  12. GeM

    “It smells pink”… oh, that’s it!

    Tuberose and orange blossoms has been my favourite perfume ingredients for ages, along with the heliotropes and vanillas, mimosa/cassie & violets, and a hint of fruit (that’s usually peach, apricot or plum). In perfumes I have been like the butterfly that flies from flower to flower for almost twenty years…. and most of my perfume collection are based on these different ingredients, separately or just a few of them working together (some of them in L’HeureBleue, in Après l’Ondée, in Une fleur de Cassie, in Feminité des Bois; and the childish tuberose in Olène, the womanly one in my beloved Fleurs d’Oranger, the diva one in Fracas, the gummiest one in Tuberose Indiana…). I have been rounding the same things time after time… As I said in Ari’s place, now I’ve reunited with the one that contains nonetheless the notes I adore in a fragrance together in one, and that’s Loulou by Cacharel, wich I also personally think that it’s one more take on the ‘Tuberose/Neroli’ thing, too (but not only), and has that sort of a ‘tropical’ quality that most of tuberose scents have, which to me smells pink.

    Being a Lutens, I guess Tubéreuse Criminelle will be a more ‘spicy aromatic’ take on the tuberose, with the nutmeg, clove and styrax touches… and for sure a most masculine scent. Love the Freudian analogies, I think I figure out what u mean exactly… but I feel curious about it, I wish I could find in stores next ‘Xmas, just to try this all-time great tuberose fragrance…!!! :)

    • I have my theory about Lutens fragrances. The orientals seem not to have a top (this is not mine, I read it somewhere). the florals however do not have a base. They feel like little perfume balloons attached to the skin with invisible strings. Tubereuse Criminelle is no exception. There are no strong spice or vanilla or wood notes to form the base of the fragrance. This makes them more delicate but at the same time more wearable by men. I wouldn’t want to be caught dead wearing Carnal Flower in public but TC somehow works very well being just a mere suggestion of the flower. Sarrasins works the same way on me: it is just the hint of jasmine perfumed garden air. So do try to find and try TC but do not expect spices. It is very abstract. I use the term “platonic”.

  13. GeM

    Ok I understand. I wore Fleurs d’Oranger for many many years, so I get the floral ‘platonic’ -well expressed- aspect you mean, and I think it’s true that they not have a base, leaving you desperate for more and that’s why I think they’re such that addicting scents.
    Then, I also wear Feminité du Bois which is a complete different thing, and in some of the orientals I find the calming, waxy (mostly waxy!), spicy, woody cedar base that is used in FdB…

    Simply I didn’t know where to put TC because all that non-export line it’s still a mistery to me.

  14. The non export line is a tease. It took 12 years for TC to become available in the export line. Eventually they will all become. Per ml the non export bottles are cheaper!

  15. Wow. I don’t even like Tuberose Criminelle (smells like a menthol-smoking country cougar to me) but I have to try it again now that you likened it to Joan of Arc.

    Tuberose is my favorite note. I adore Fracas. I also adore the top and heart notes of Carnal Flower, but towards the end it starts to smell like what you said, I think.

  16. Columbine

    I never liked any of the tuberose perfumes, unless it’s subtle, like in Jardin Blanc.

    but if there is a perfume I am madly in love with, it’s Tubéreuse Criminelle. narcotic is one thing, another is as you call it “split personality”. i also love the way the scents unfold on the skin. after the initial pharmacy shock, the flower unfolds gently but surely in the most beautiful way.
    there is no perfume like it and it’s amazing how it’s love or hate at first sight for most people, yet, there is a third class, those who hate it at first and then become addicted.

    to me, it’s the most amazing perfume ever, because if there are many disconcerting perfumes around (i.e those from Etat libre d’orange), none have the refinement and elegance of Lutens/Sheldrake’s Tubéreuse.
    i have tried to find another Lutens perfume that does to me what TC does, but have not found one. but i have not tried all of them yet and what you wrote about Mandarine Mandarin intrigued be so we’ll see…

    it’s difficult for me to imagine what TC smells on a man, to me it’s such a “femme fatale” perfume (country cougar???? hum, i don’t quite fit the description so i’ll just ignore it)

    • I do not think TC is really that feminine if you think about it. On me it smells like poisoned butter, if I can use the term. It has a lot to do with skin chemistry of course and I think my skin is kind enough to allow me wearing feminine scents, muting down the feminine notes. Or this is what I prefer to believe :)

      • Columbine

        you are right, it’s not about being feminine or not, i don’t feel that way about this perfume, precisely because it’s not sickeningly sugary like Fracas or a few others. i was thinking more in terms of personality. i have never smelt it on anyone else, female or male and i have no idea what i would feel (scent wise) if that happened.

        men love this perfume on women so i don’t see why they should not like it on themselves. it’s just that i have difficulties imagining it.

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