When the house of Pierre Balmain released Ambre Gris in late 2008, it got a lot of press - and a lot of hype as well. After its recent missteps (Balmya, the disappointing Jolie Madame and Vent Vert reformulations, and La Môme for many) the house needed a big hit, and it got one with Ambre Gris, which was composed by the young Givaudan perfumer Guillaume Flavigny, who also did La Môme. It flew off the shelves at the full price of $135 for the large100 ml size, and when it went to the discounters surprisingly quickly; it soon was listed as “Out of Stock” on almost every online merchant's site. People made fun of the “disco ball” cap; I thought it was very Jazz Age and I loved it, especially in contrast to the smoky gray bottle. I smelled it once at my local shop, but I did not want to pay that much unless I was absolutely sure that I loved it. Then other scents intervened and I put the idea of buying it on the back burner. I figured I could always find it at a discounter if I decided I wanted it, since it had gone down market so suddenly.
Well, a few weeks ago I went looking for it again and guess what? It was still out of stock at almost every store! Apparently the craze for it had not subsided. I tried bidding for a bottle or two on eBay and I was quickly humbled by how much other people were willing to pay, and the bottles were few and far between anyway. The only place it was (and still is) in stock was at Luckyscent, at full price. Lo and behold, a perfumista friend included a vial of it in a recent sample swap, so I finally had enough of it to test and figure out if I still wanted it.
Ambre Gris was pleasant right off the bat, no waiting for the delicious warmth of pink pepper, cinnamon, myrrh and immortelle flower enriched with tuberose to expand and surround me, eventually drying down to the velvety ambergris base. I thought it was True Love for a few minutes, and then something odd happened about fifteen minutes after I applied it. This was supposed to be part of Balmain’s return to its roots of high-end perfumery, but I smelled something that seemed very synthetic, and not in a good way. It smelled like fake wood, the kind you find in “sporty” men's fragrances; synthetic woody-amber. Okay, the wood in this is supposed to be “smoky Gaiac wood” according to Luckyscent, and I did not detect even a trace of smoke. Was it a by-product of “white musk” that I was smelling? It did seem to have that sharp, overly clean aroma that is so prevalent today, and frankly I do not want that kind of clean in my perfume; I wanted nothing to interfere with the delicate beauty of the eponymous foundation note in this fragrance. Ambergris itself is said to have a rather smoky quality, and this was not it. Maybe my nose is just very sensitive to the aroma chemicals responsible for the modern idea of “fresh and clean” in perfumery. (I am old school in that regard; I want my freshness to come from things like real citrus essence and herbal extracts.) Or perhaps it was the cinnamon interacting with something else. In any case, I waited it out and it went away, and then the perfume began to change; it smoothed out and developed a certain silkiness once the cinnamon calmed down a bit. It eventually developed into a true comfort scent, and lasted all day; the second time I wore it, it was still going strong more than sixteen hours later, and I could still smell it when I woke up the next morning. In the deep drydown there is a slight salty tang like a touch of cool seawater, which is very pleasing in juxtaposition to the warmer notes.
Ambre Gris is not a true gourmand scent by any means, nor is it overpowering. It is simply a nice fragrance in the Oriental style, not as sweet as many of them and possessing a great deal of refinement. It is not one of those heavy hitters that should be reserved for special evenings either, as it is subdued enough for day and is never loud. I found myself enjoying it very much after the fleeting discordant quality in the opening. This one really needs time to play out before you figure out if it's right for you. I will probably get a bottle one of these days, maybe in the smaller size, since it would be hard to use up100 ml of this stuff. I can see it becoming an all-occasion perfume for people who really like this style of fragrance especially if they live where winters are cold. I cannot imagine wearing it in summer, as it is like a cashmere shawl of a scent, clinging and warm and just what you need to wrap yourself in when there is a chill in the air. I would have loved to wear it earlier in the winter when my part of the country was in a deep freeze, but it's almost balmy and very damp here now and I have to be careful about deploying this kind of sweet, hazy perfume in close quarters. When it gets cool and brisk again, and it will before spring comes, I will wear Ambre Gris again and revel in its enveloping depth. I can't really say if it lives up to the hype it received when it was introduced, but I found it to be highly enjoyable and a cut above the mainstream of prestige perfumery. I hope that Balmain continues to redeem itself with future releases of this quality.
Image credit: Balmain Ambre Gris bottle, Luckyscent.com