Suzanne's Perfume Journal

When I got up yesterday morning, I knew it was going to a scorching hot day—so, what to wear to the outdoor wedding shower that my husband and I were attending in the afternoon? I ended up pairing a navy blue polka-dot halter dress (vintage inspired) with a pair of wedge sandals that have a 4-inch, basket-weave heel and a strap of red patent leather across the toe. And then I sprayed Serge Lutens Borneo 1834 quite liberally across my shoulders and down my arms. It was a good match—the flowy and girly attire coupled to something that has an air of both restraint and mystery. Borneo 1834 offers up a brooding dark whiff of European niceties: Scandinavian black licorice, Italian espresso, and bitter dark chocolate from an expensive shop in Paris. Its sensibility is at once cosmopolitan and exotic, making me feel a touch more like Josephine Baker in my ensemble than like a dolled-up version of myself. And while I don’t kid myself into thinking that perfume can transform me into something I’m not, it’s amazing how a sophisticated fragrance and a pair of sky-high heels can change one’s comportment for a few precious hours.

A patchouli-dominant scent, Borneo 1834’s elegance and exoticism set it a world apart from most patchouli perfumes and lead me to believe that it would make easy work of winning over those who normally can’t stand the note, either because they associate it with hippie, head-shop funk or because they loathe the current treatment of patchouli in which it is cleaned-up to such a degree that it ends up smelling more confectionery than earthy. Borneo 1834 straddles the middle of that spectrum, which might sound like a compromise but is not. This perfume has gourmand facets that aren’t the least bit sweet; and it possesses an earthy tone that is not the literal smell of soil but a seared-earth scent that conjures up images of far-flung continents (something hard to imagine in this day and age, but not for those of us who are willing to time-travel with Serge Lutens back to 1834).

The notes for Borneo 1834 include Indonesian patchouli, camphor, cardamom, cistus labdanum, galbanum, and cacao.  If you’re reading this and wondering how I managed to wear such a liberal dosing (seven sprays) of it in the heat without overwhelming the other party-goers with my sillage, it’s because this perfume is only heavy in the first five minutes after application. I love those opening minutes, in which Borneo 1834 starts off smelling like sinfully dark rum-raisins, but this is the only phase in which it could be characterized as intense. The rum-raisin smell doesn’t stick around either, and that’s not a complaint, as the perfume very quickly becomes a swirl of the aforementioned bitter-black notes of licorice, coffee and chocolate—strong in terms of their olfactory hue, yet surprisingly soft in terms of their amplification. In other words, this is not a perfume that leaves a noticeable scent trail behind it (at least not in my experience); it wears close to the skin, where its deliciousness lingers for a decent amount of time (about four or five hours). Borneo is fairly linear for much of its wear, but in the far drydown a leather smell emerges that is nuanced but adds a sexy tenor to the scent in its final stages.

I should probably resist my desire to anthropomorphize this fragrance, since it really doesn’t lean in any gender direction, but I can’t help it: its mahogany darkness combined with its low-key groove puts me in mind of the singer Janet Jackson, circa 1993, when she came out with a new album and a new image—and it was hard to take one’s eyes and ears off of her, not because she had upped the volume, but because she had dialed it down in a powerful way. Both she and her music had gotten sleeker, quieter and more refined. Whereas in her Rhythm Nation days, she seemed intent on following in her brother Michael’s footsteps with hard-driving dance songs, robotic choreography and a wardrobe of military-like uniforms, when she re-emerged on the scene with her soul-based Janet album, she had softened everything up except her rock-hard physique (and her attitude about sex). When I think about Janet Jackson in that incredibly sensual video for her song, That’s The Way Love Goes, where she sings in her soft breathy voice and moves her body like a cat—nuanced moves that involve a certain arch of back, juxtaposition of elbows, and fluid twist of torso and hip—I'm convinced that she, in that early 90s incarnation, provides a pretty good analogy to Borneo 1834. If you’re ever in the mood for a fragrance that is bewitchingly dark and incredibly slinky, yet won’t wake the neighbors as it performs its slow shimmy-shake on your skin, this one is it. 

Serge Lutens Borneo 1834:

Patchouli—Dark, Worldly and Discreet

Serge Lutens Borneo 1834 can be purchased from the official Serge Lutens website, as well as from Barneys.com, where a 75-ml bell jar is currently priced at $300. My review is based on a bottle I purchased during my visit to the Serge Lutens boutique in Paris in May 2012.

Photo of Janet Jackson is from Fanpop.com, and photo of Borneo 1834 is from Barneys.com.

July 8, 2012:

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