I don't often pass comment on the price of new perfume releases, but sometimes it's hard not to. The latest scent from Serge Lutens - the first in what is being presented as a new range of exclusive, gold-label bottles - is selling at £380 for 50 ml. That's right: £380. Or $600 for my American readers. Before anyone accuses me of being unjustifiably hysterical about this, yes, I realise that L'Incendiaire is an extrait, which means that, per millilitre, it falls within the same bracket as extraits from Guerlain, Chanel or Dior. And sure, I'm aware that we live in a world where prices rise rather than fall: most brands, both niche and mainstream, hike up their prices in small increments on a regular basis, and many of them now offer products which are well above the £200 margin. But even so, £380 for a single bottle of scent (which cannot be purchased in a smaller, less expensive form and comes from a company that isn't known for pushing exclusivity to silly extremes) is pretty shocking. That's why I'm inclined to give free rein to my hysteria and view L'Incendiaire as something of a watershed.
In recent years, several perfume houses have cottoned on to the fact that some people will pay anything for a passable smell in a pretty bottle. Or should that be: 'many people will pay anything'? The general consensus amongst economic commentators is that the poor are getting poorer whilst the rich are most definitely getting richer, which means that the latter need more toys on which to spend their pennies. Enter: canny fragrance brands who know that a little bit of bling goes a long way. Was it Jean-Claude Ellena who said that the way to make a 'luxury' perfume is to charge an arm and a leg for it? Someone's been taking his words to heart.
I know I've cited this example before, but it bears repeating. If a small brand like Neela Vermeire Créations (which, unlike Lutens and its wealthy parent company, does not enjoy economies of scale) can afford to sell 50 ml of a gorgeous extrait for about £300 (and pour it into what I suspect is a much more expensive bottle) then, for want of a better term, somebody, somewhere is having a laugh. And it's at our expense.
But what about the scent itself? Is it worth 38,000 pence? That is, of course, an impossible question to answer: you can't really place a monetary value on beauty. However, I'm afraid L'Incendiaire didn't set me on fire. It didn't even turn me tepid. It is essentially a very dry, monochromatic wood scent, heavy on cedar and incense, with a faintly animalic base and a disappointing lack of any notable contrasts, except for the nondescript 'light' facet which seems to run across the top of its structure. It plays out like a diluted parody of Sheldrake/Lutens cliches. It's not especially diffusive. It doesn't smell particularly rich or complex. And I can't say it's terribly distinctive. 'Smouldering fireplace' perfumes aren't difficult to find - Bois D'Ascèse from Naomi Goodsir is the first one that pops into my head as I write this - and L'Incendiaire doesn't contribute anything remarkable to their number. It does what it does fairly well, but it fails to make a lasting impression.
Will it sell? Yes, I expect it will, because there are enough people out there who equate price with quality. And of course, it's entirely up to them to decide how they wish to spend their cash. But personally, I think it would be a shame if Lutens makes his future output as inaccessible as this release. It's an unnecessary gesture and it smacks of more than a little cynicism. If several other brands follow suit, then the retail landscape could be a very different place in three or four years' time... so start saving up now!
[Review based on a sample of parfum obtained in 2014.]