Looking through my archives I realize that I have virtually nothing written on amber. This is strange, since theoretically, as a lover or orientals and heavy, decadent perfumes such as Bal A Versailles, there should be more. In reality, though I love an ambered finish to a scent, be it Parfum d’Hermes, Guerlain’s Heritage EDP, or the spectacular drydown of Metalys/Metallica (exactly my kind of subtle, ambered texture once the carnations have vanished); L’Artisan Parfumeur’s L’Eau Du Navigateur – all diaphanous incense, coffee and sand-kissed amber fade-down , or the strange cassis-ambered conclusion of Caron’s under appreciated Montaigne, an unalloyed, pure, heaving amber often suffocates me, as though I were being dragged down, silk-gagged, in a heavy, camel- hair coat (with a dense, cashmere lining), on a humid and sweltering August afternoon.
Don’t get me wrong. I see an amber, I smell it. Such perfumes luxuriate in their sweet thickness and westerner-alluring orientalism. They glow with deep smell and the prospect of aggressive blankets of sillage that sink on air and stay richly in the brain. I gravitate towards these perfumes, in many ways, and sometimes briefly consider buying them, but virtually never then end up reaching for my wallet. Ultimately it can often seem to me as if the thickest and richest ambers own and then work you, as though you had been tantalized by, but were then drowning in, a giant, bristling vat of overcooked, throat-stopping toffee.
The prototype of the classical amber scent for me is probably Jean Claude Ellena’s L’Eau d’Ambre by L’Artisan Parfumeur, ground zero of the pure amber perfume, just labdanum, patchouli, some rose, and probably some vanilla, but it doesn’t matter because all you get is that caramellized, sweet insistent ambered smell that is so French (the popular Reminiscence Paris Ambre also smells quite similar). In a sense this, and its more robust younger sibling, Ambre Extrême, are the sina qua non of classical ambers, clinging like velvet – autumnal, even melancholic – but even though I can imagine the odd spritz here or there on a cold winter’s day there is something, still, at the heart of this formula, that slightly repels me. As I wrote in my review of Parfumerie Generale’s Ombre Fauve (an unclean, animalic amber), there is still that dirty, unmade bed aspect of encroaching mental illness in L’Eau de l’Ambre – of unwashed hair, of a certain musked obsessiveness – that makes me yearn for open windows.
Ambre Sultan: When the first Serge Lutens perfumes came out at the beginning of the 1990’s they were iconic. Unprecedented. Fiercely strong, crafted with integrity and self-excitement, these perfumes seemed to open up new possibilities in what fragrance could be (and we didn’t even have the word ‘niche’ to categorize the perfumes then – they were just new). And although Ambre Sultan perturbed me at the time with its sheer potency and by these exotic and unfamiliar accords I had never before experienced (not only the impressively voluptuous amber, vanilla and resins themselves but also the peculiar bay leaf, myrtle, and oregano spice market swirl of the top notes, most odd), I enjoyed wearing the samples and could dream of a more exciting perfumed future. It lingered, it professed, it was Ambre Sultan, now an oriental legend. Fast forward a decade or so, though, and the bottle I then got as a Christmas present that year was a pale shadow of its former self (as are most of the Serge Lutens now in my opinion). It was alright, and it still had the evocative, dusty herbs at the spice souk aspect that made it so distinctive, but the base was no way near as impressive, and now more generically wan and vanillic. I used up my bottle, of course, and enjoyed it mixed with other things when the occasion was right, but in truth it was never a perfect match for me anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t invest in another.
While I have long enjoyed wearing Calvin Klein’s Obsession (another amber perfume and my first ever perfume love) as well as Cartier Must Parfum – amber, vanilla, florals, and an unusual top note of green galbanum- together with L’Othantique’s ghostly, powdery Fleurs D’Ambre, other ambers I have tried on occasion in my rich, ludicrously perfumed life include Ambre Fetiche by Annick Goutal (ok, but too angled, rasping and smoky for me personally), and Ambre Precieux by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, which I consider perfect – a very beautifully austere, deep and shadowy ambered perfume that has a gentlemantly dignity about it that I am not quite sure I can carry off convincingly but which I can imagine falling in love with on another person. If I were wearing Ambre Precieux myself I think I might keep making too many jokes in whoever’s presence I happened to be just to introduce a light touch of offsetting levity. Or else I might just get depressed. It is beautiful, but for an amber, this perfume has a surprisingly high level of gravitas.
In contrast, I have no time really for the fancy boutique hotel lobby ‘luxurious’ brand ambers such as Tom Ford Amber Absolute (solid and good but overwhelming; the recent Rive D’Ambre precisely the opposite, making so little impression on my consciousness that I couldn’t recall it at all, just a few minutes of deeply inhaling it), or the ritzy metallic slick of a perfume like Dior’s overly style-prescribed Ambre Nuit – the perfect example of an overloaded niche level perfume that is just too much bother and contains little beauty, in my view, although I have lingered several times in the past over Parfums D’Empire’s sturdy and convincing Ambre Russe, partly because I do have an attraction to all things Russian, but mostly because I like the no nonsense style of perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato who usually creates quite unpretentious but full, bodied, upliftingly rich perfumes that quite simply please the senses. While I had considered buying this gilded, glinting perfume for its punchy, masculine blast of ambered richness, I was always slightly troubled by a certain saltiness, the champagne and vodka notes in the top notes of the perfume that remind me, now, of the horrifying Womanity by Thierry Mugler, possibly not only the worst perfume I have ever smelled in my life, but also the worst olfactory experience (I once had the misfortune to be on a plane on my way from Japan back to England near a woman who had just drenched herself in this fig, metal, vodka, and caviar monstrosity at Duty Free, while then quite openly proceeding to change her baby’s diapers – who seemed to have come down with a case of gastro enteritis -just a little way down the aisle from where I was sitting (yes, actually in her seat). I can tell you quite bluntly this was an olfactory combination that I never want to re-experience: I was shouting and becoming unruly, thrashing about in my seat -we were in ‘fasten your seatbelt mode’ at the time – in nasal and mental pain as the combined miasma of smells assailed me, deeply embarrassing Duncan who couldn’t believe my crazed reaction and was trying desperately to shut me up). In reality there are no similarities between Ambre Russe – an amber perfume I respect – and the chemical, piscine foulness of the Mugler – but somehow in my smell brain some notes have now become inextricably interlinked after this scent trauma, so I suppose that does mean dosvidaniya.
To expand on the ambers in this impulsively written piece I have just been looking through my perfumed drawers of samples looking for Mona Di Orio’s Ambre, which I remember being typically different and rebellious (she always revised the templates of any given perfume category): light, and emotionally relevant, but I can’t find it – please remind me of its character if you do know this one. Instead, I came across a vial of Guerlain’s Bois D’Armenie which I consider to be an amber – balsamic, resinous, quite dirty yet dark and soft and mysterious, not as sharp as Tonka Imperiale from the same Les Matieres collection ( also a rich and glinting amber I once had a bottle of), as well as Armani Prive’s Ambre d’Orient, a straight-down-the-line rich, middle Eastern amber a la Ambre Sultan but less eccentric, more….. Armani. Effective though – it delivers the goods, stays beautifully on the skin, and I can imagine wearing it one day in combination with something else if the right mood – extrovert, sociable, big-hearted, I will envelop you- suddenly catches me.
Speaking of which, I have, actually, been wearing, rather than just pontificating on, an amber these last couple of weeks, the most recent release of all the perfumes here. While you wouldn’t catch me dead in a chemically purified ‘amber’ of the Prada variety, this new scent – Amber Molecule, by a perfumer I had never heard of before until I received a sample bottle in the post- is smooth and ambered but full of light. A dose of ‘vanilla musk’ and ‘French powder’ combine with floral tones (tuberose absolute and orris) and lift the ambered notes up top, while as the perfume settles, it has the familiarly oriental, ambered facets that amber lovers love while managing to hover just above the curve of the skin without asphyxiating it. The problem I think for me with heavily concentrated classic ambers is the fact of constant awareness. Although I like to be conscious of the scent I am projecting – because perfume is ultimately more about personal pleasure than anything else – at the same time I like for that knowing to sometimes fade into oblivion and then for the sentience of the perfume to unexpectedly resurface at differing points during the day – an mmmmmm I am loving myself in this, I wonder if anyone else is: for the scent to then disappear, intermittently, as I think about other things happening within and without me as I get on with whatever I am doing. With the relentless, clobbering caramel of an overly persistent amber you don’t get this – for me it starts to feel like something of a liability. An intrusion. And while Amber Molecule might not hit all my buttons completely (perhaps it is a little bit sweet ; shallow?) it nevertheless, in a most pleasant manner, at least allows the light-headed, ambery goodness working its magic on your skin and encircling you – soft, uninhibited, approachable, sensual – to properly breathe.