Serge Lutens possesses this uncanny ability of turning a priori the most superficial, surface objects and sensations into an oniric walk taken down the maze of a garden as if in a daydream. With Five O' Clock Au Gingembre composed in collaboration with perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, a tea party in an English manor opens the way to the muffled, velvety footsteps of a discovery walk down the dozens of labyrinthine corridors of a mansion built with hundreds of forgotten rooms. At the same time the contained intensity of the perfume, which unfurls as if following the line of a fall suggests a drop in a well filled with dark light. The perfume is thus complex in the sense of creating both a horizontal line of imagery, by minutely shifting the sensations, and a vertical one by creating an impression of dynamic deepening.
Five O'Clock is one of the most difficult perfumes I have had to write about due to the level of detail found in it and its structuring which is poorly rendered by a chronological account. I am tempted to say that it is more constructed like a faceted gem, but it is not quite that either. It is more like a combination of both structures, the linear one and the prismatic one. Or another way to put it would be to say that it is the most elusive of the Lutens despite its deceptive homey title...
Both spatial sensations suggest that the more elaborate purpose of a Lutensian perfume is to play a mind-game and call our attention to a higher order of things rather than just ensnare the senses with - in this case - all the requisite olfactory trappings of an afternoon spent drinking tea sensually bruising orange skins in one's hand, nibbling on moist crystallized ginger candies and biscuits, sweetening one's brew with honey offering the ideal consistency of Lyle's golden syrup, sipping an additional goblet of egg nogg, taking a walk in the forest and when back feeling the warm leathers of club armchairs release their captive spicy aromas as the steam of the teapot renders the atmosphere laden with rich scents.
The somewhat ritualistic aspect of this English tea ceremony becomes the point of entry into a more abstract exploration of aesthetic ideals and light and shadows cast by memory and dream. Serge Lutens has said in an interview given to this site (Part 1 & Part 2) that the or a starting point for the perfume is anchored in biography and the memory of an original intense dislike, the taste of ginger as experienced first in a Vietnamese restaurant in the 1970s. This initial intense sensation is found again in the perfume but not as manifesting disgust anymore. Beyond that, ginger seems to become a focal point for expressing psychological evolution. Serge Lutens changed his mind about the taste of ginger and for that reason perhaps, this perfume is the one most evocative of progression in time and space.
Five O' Clock Au Gingembre if smelled attentively is constructed as if a succession of wind-screens were removed one by one in the long corridor of a dream echoing with the footfall of a solitary inquiring mind. If smelled more casually, it offers all the insignia of comfort and coziness that one can expect from a perfume with a rich gourmand theme, which moreover pays tribute to the British style of living. If this ideal of the good life can be summed up in one word, we don't see any other word than "cozy" sounding more convincingly at home in Albion with the notion being well concretized in that object named a "tea-cozy" as if to jot down a permanent hyphenated reminder of Britain's values. Thus, Five O' Clock at one level feels cozy.
Taking the attentive approach, which the internal complexity of the scent allows for, it is striking to witness the subtle graduated development of the scent. Centimeter by centimeter Five O' Clock Au Gingembre progresses unveiling a different nuance at each pause with the support of a relative economy of means. The same notes orange, honey, ginger, cinnamon, clove, amber, musk, dark cacao, cedar, patchouli are turned around in combinatorial variations revealing different subtle impressions with a few displacements only.
The palette is gourmand but also composed of dark tints and literally makes use of black, a rare sensation in a perfume if not in the visual arts. Having, consciously at least, forgotten about the insistence on the color black in Serge Lutens' description of the scent in which he makes references to a black Rolls Royce and a black Wedgwood tea service, one is reminded of it suddenly as the unusual sensation of a ginger fragrance that is both luminous and black suddenly unfolds, letting out the sheen of a branch of jet-black coral. It is like seeing the eclipse of a normal sensation, be it the paleness of the moon or the golden rays of the sun shutting down.
Five O' Clock thus suggests the midnight-eclipse version of a ginger fragrance losing its solar quality to become bitumen-like, tarry, while some light is shone into the composition anew thanks to citrus-y notes and the golden glow of honey. It is therefore a very sophisticated rendering of ginger.
It calls to mind at one point the light and texture effects of Tabu without smelling like it. If Tabu smells on the verge of turning charcoal-y black, it never does while Five O' Clock Au Gingembre manages somehow to convey that visual-olfactive impression thanks to a mix of ever darkening amber, at one point, and black cacao.
Observing the unfolding of the chronological development of Five O' Clock is seeing new things, different things each time. Subtle nuances come to the fore at one point or another as the construction of the scent allows for slight displacements of the perception. A composite picture of the sensations experienced could be described in the following manner.
The perfume starts with a realistic impression of pressed orange skins releasing their oils then becomes more marmalade-like. Or you could notice the rummy nuance from the start and the highly moistened crystallized ginger chunks. Or you could be sensitive to the smells of fresh cut cedar wood, vetiver and honey. Or notice that fresh tingle of an old-school after-shave. It soon segues into a sweet, soft, silken, even velvety sensation. The ginger takes on animalic nuances as if you had left it to cure with some musk and ambergris in a sweets box.
The ginger accord, which seems dark at first becomes literally suggestive of black as the smell is associated with a dynamic deepening of sensations. There are both dark syrupy and light nuances as the syrup feels floral.
The pleasant brown tarry intensity accompanied by subtle light floral overtones deepens like a well of dark light into which one free falls, perhaps a reference to that entering point into the imagination and dream-world in Alice in Wonderland. It is now a black ginger fragrance letting out, somehow, the shine of black-patent leather shoes. The dark well next suggests a well of oil. The sensation then hits a bottom where the scent mellows like a gentle candied flow of lava with hints of spicy bonbons.
A Little later, one could call attention to a savory ambery and musky accord, which feels like salty skin begging to be licked. Then there is a woodsy forest-like impression, then it becomes chocolate-y, then suggests an animalic cinnamon.
Next, the honeyed resinous amber becomes almost leathery then smoky. The perfume feels at one point both watery and honeyed, like a glass of mead. The composition is very sweet but not heavy. The slight medicinal pungency of fresh ginger root this time comes through late. Then it smells more characteristically of smoky tea or Lapsang Souchong. It reveals now its earthy facet but in a very refined manner as if it had been sifted through a mull handkerchief. Later, you will even be able to catch some unexpected rummy egg nogg nuances.
The dry-down is ambery and musky and the sensations abate becoming simpler. It is long-lasting, prolonging itself into the next day. Nuances of gingerbread, dark fruits, and pomander surface.
Five O' Clock Au Gingembre is not to be literally interpreted as a gourmand ginger fragrance although it offers that aspect too, evidently. More than that, it is a point of entry into an imaginary world and mental landscape where unnatural objects exist like black shiny ginger.
In the end, more than a reflection on luxury in a class-connoted sense, it is one on rarity in terms of creativity and aesthetics. You could decide to buy a black South-African diamond and wear it at the tea party served in black Wedgwood but if the rare is most of all a shock experienced by the unsuspecting mind and a refined constructed work of the imagination turning what is banal into what is unique, then you could decide to lacquer your ginger candy black.
Main facets: Oriental, Gourmand, Warm, Amber-y, Spicy, Sweet
Official notes and accords: bergamot, candied ginger, honey, pepper, dark cocoa, meltingly soft cookie, gingerbread, patchouli, vetiver.
The perfume, 50 ml for 79 Euros, is available online at La Mûre Favorite and The Perfume Shoppe. It could become available later at Aedes and Lusckyscent as well as Blue Mercury.