Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Now is not the time of year when you’d find many perfumistas wearing Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles. In the northern hemisphere, summery weather is still on tap, and in the southern hemisphere the season is turning towards spring. Fille en Aiguilles is, in most people’s eyes, a winter scent, yet I have been craving it thanks to two things: the heavily romantic mood I’ve been in lately and a raging interest in all things Serge Lutens spurred by reading a friend’s blog. Kafkaesque is the friend, whose approach to perfume blogging is the polar opposite of mine. We both are in the habit of writing long reviews, but whereas my posts are largely connected to other interests that I yammer on about before I deliver up a flimsy paragraph or two on the perfume itself, Kafkaesque writes with a fine level of detail about the perfume subject at hand. I’m going to be presumptuous and suggest that K's background as a former attorney, along with a love of history, informs the writing style, which is impressively thorough while also being evocative and interested in what I’ll call the personal story—and this combo is particularly mesmerizing in a two-part post examining the life, career and artistic aesthetic of Serge Lutens (which you can read here and here). Those articles, along with K's enchanting review of Fille en Aiguilles, have pushed this fragrance to the forefront of my mind.

The literal translation of Fille en Aiguilles is “Girl in Needles”—and though it’s been noted at many blogs that this might refer to a girl in stiletto shoes, with their needle-like heels, the perfume itself pivots on the scent of pine, with notes of “pine needles, vetiver, sugary sap, laurel, fir balsam, frankincense, candied fruit and spice.” Smelling this perfume blind, with no name to go on, it’s not easy to get a bead on the purported girl that is among these needles. At least not immediately. While I know that many perfume lovers don’t care to reference a scent as masculine or feminine—and indeed, why should the scent of pine have any kind of gender distinction?—I find that I prefer to analyze perfume through a lens that has archetypes in it. This has no bearing on what kind of perfume I choose to wear, only on how I interpret the character of the perfume I’m wearing. So, when I smell Fille en Aiguilles, which has not only the scent of pine but of brut-dry wood, its dominant wood accord conjures up for me the image of a man. Not all wood-based accords do, but those with a hard and arid wood scent conjure this male-archetype for two reasons: the first being that woodworking was traditionally the labor of men, and the second being that its “duro” quality makes me think of the sleek, flat-planed physique of a man in every aspect.

Yet the scent of pine needles and dry wood are not the only olfactory elements of Fille en Aiguilles. Its other prominent features include a spiciness that is more cool, green and tingly than hot, and a contrastingly warm, ambery, sweet accord that has a liquor-like darkness about it. The sweetness here resemble rum raisins—and though I generally think of sweet smells as having an air of the feminine about them (again, due to traditional associations), this sweetness isn’t girlish, nor does it lighten or lift the overall character of this perfume; to my mind, it intensifies it. If there is a girl within Fille en Aiguilles, then it is a girl who has become a woman—a girl whose only girlishness is her sense of romantic longing, her sense of “pining” for the man of her dreams. Naturally, I have no idea what kind of interpretation the perfumer had in mind when he created this fragrance and gave it a name that is as much an enigma as the Mona Lisa’s smile. But to my mind, Fille en Aiguilles is the scent of a girl on pins and needles—“on tenterhooks,” so to speak—and as such, when I smell this deep scent with its primeval scent of forest and its dark booziness that reminds me of intoxication in a metaphorical sense (as in a heart’s intoxicated state of longing), then I feel inclined to represent it here with a passage from a book that speaks to those elements.

If you’re a regular reader here, you won’t be surprised that this passage is from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain—his Civil War novel that is not really about the war. The Civil War is fully present and accounted for, but it largely occupies the form of a dark and chasmic sea that two people are navigating as they make their way back to one another. There is Inman, a wounded soldier who has left an army hospital and is now a deserter, making a long and treacherous journey home to Cold Mountain and the woman he fell in love with only shortly before the war broke out. And there is the woman herself, Ada Monroe, a genteel, city-bred girl who is learning how to survive the war by turning the land she inherited in Cold Mountain into a working farm, and who, by way of her heart, is learning to love the land itself because (this inference is my own) it’s the embodiment of Inman.

In this passage we find Ada sitting outside in one of her fields, tending a fire she started earlier on this fall day, to burn the brush that she and her helpmate, Ruby, had cleared from the field. Now it’s late evening and she’s looking up at the full moon, studying the eclipse that has taken a bite out of it and preparing to write a letter to Inman, not knowing he left the army hospital months ago. The earlier part of her evening had been eventful: while minding the fire, she was paid a surprise visit by two outliers (army deserters) who crept out of the woods—one of them Ruby’s father, Stobrod, whose only talent is playing the fiddle, and the other a soft-headed man whose only talent is in accompanying his companion on the banjo. Not long afterwards, Ruby returned from town with a brisket of meat she'd bartered for, which the two women set to roasting on the fire, and, fetching a bottle of cider they'd made earlier in the season, they shared their meager supper with the two men, who'd returned their hospitality in the only way they could: by regaling them with all of the tunes in their repertoire.

Finally, with the day's events behind her, and alone again by the fire, 

It might seem far-fetched to describe the way a perfume smells by likening it to an excerpt from a novel, but if you can imagine the smells and feelings inherent in this scene, then you’ll know what I smell in Fille en Aiguilles. It smells like the coolness of pine—brisk and camphorous—and it smells like the dry and scoured scent of autumn brushwood. It’s quietly smoky, like the last embers of a dying fire, and it’s darkly sweet and fermented, like the cider that is partaken at supper time. It has an anise-like scent that is as cool as the brittle sky that Ada sits under, and it has gingery warmth that makes me think of the quilts that Ada has wrapped around herself. In the same way that stories are told with familiar words juxtaposed in such a way that they take on greater feeling and meaning, the juxtaposition of familiar smells are more than the sum of their parts. When I smell Fille en Aiguilles, it is more than the scent of a piney wood for me, as I assume it is more than that for its creator. In my romantic mind, this is the scent of a man—the one who isn’t at supper—and the essence of this fille’s feelings for him. A scent that recalls her heart, skittish with worry, steeled with hope, intoxicated with desire and warmed by intent.

September 9, 2013:

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Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles eau de parfum can be purchased from the official Serge Lutens website, where a 50-ml bottle like the one pictured above is currently priced at $150. I purchased a bottle for myself not long after writing this review.

Cold Mountain, copyright © 1997 by Charles Frazier (The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1997, p. 272)

Finding the Girl in Serge Lutens Fille en Aiguilles

The dark walls of Black Cove rose up and held her fixed in a cup of land, and she lay content and watched the sky as the moon gradually emerged from the earth’s shadow. She thought about the refrain of a tune Stobrod had sung that night, a ragged love song. Its ultimate line was: Come back to me is my request. Stobrod could not have uttered it with more conviction had it been one of the profounder lines of Endymion. Ada had to admit that, at least now and again, just saying what your heart felt, straight and simple and unguarded, could be more useful than four thousand lines of John Keats. She had never been able to do it in her whole life, but she thought she would like to learn how.

She went in the house and got her lap desk and a candle lantern and came back to the chair. She inked her pen and then sat and stared at the paper until her nib dried out. Every phrase she thought of seemed nothing but prose and irony. She wiped the pen clean on a blotter and dipped again and wrote, Come back to me is my request. She signed her name and folded the paper and addressed it to the hospital in the capital. She wrapped up tight in the quilts and soon she was asleep and frost fell on her and the outer quilt became crisp with rime.