My Final Perfume Frontier: Coming to Terms with Amber
My tastes in perfume have changed and expanded over the years, as would be expected, and I have to look back in some amusement as my early preference for girlish florals slowly and steadily morphed into more exotic realms, and now I can honestly say that I love perfumes of just about every style, from leathery chypre to desert-dry incense to hothouse heavy white floral to animalic Oriental and almost everything in between. Of all perfumes, there is one genre that I wear the least and whose perennial popularity I have never really understood, and that is ambery fragrances, especially those that feature the sweetly resinous amber blend as the main focus of the composition. I once wore Jean Patou's magnificent Sublime almost exclusively and loved it, but there was a lot more going on there than just amber. Same with Rochas' Absolu, an amber-rich floral-oriental; yes it has amber in it, but it's not really an amber perfume.
I became interested in trying more amber scents for several reasons. I knew I was missing out on some really nice perfumes by ignoring them, and smelling some ambery vintage fragrances had made me realize how good they could be; the Extrait de Parfum of Coty's L'Origan is a thing of rare beauty, and a recent swap netted me a decant of vintage Fabergé's Tigress that blew me away with its sexy impact. I was also very impressed with the gorgeous Amberesse that natural perfumer Anya McCoy made for the recent Outlaw Perfume Project. I have a small sample of it and wish I had more. Then there was the marvelous Chocolate Amber scent from La Via del Profumo that I fell hard for. So I looked through my sample stash and did some testing and trading, and I came up with a selection with a range from light to heavy in the amber department to see what happened to them on my skin.
I already had samples of both Keiko Mecheri's Crystal D'Ambre and Balmain's Ambre Gris, and when I tried them on together they were very similar; if you own one, you probably don't need the other. Ambre Gris has a sharp and somewhat strange beginning but both of them dry down to a soft and rather powdery amber that's easy to live with. Crystal D'Ambre is especially soft and suede-like while not being overly sweet and I really enjoyed wearing it. Ambre Gris is a fragrance that I am still dithering over whether I should buy or not; I love the final result but the opening is just a little dissonant. If you are an amber beginner, either of these would be nice introductions to the genre.
Amberesse from Anya's Garden Perfumes was delightful from start to finish. It contains only natural ingredients, so it's the only one of this group guaranteed to be free of Ambroxan or other synthetic “amber” materials. Its radiance reminded me of the vintage L'Origan I had tried, which is saying a lot. It has a quiet start and then builds, and since perfumes tend to get sweeter on me I was afraid it would go over the top, but it never did. It heart of roses and other florals makes for a beautifully balanced composition, playing perfectly with its creamy-nutty and vanillic Oriental facets. I would gladly wear this perfume anytime and it really made me an amber convert.
Next in scale is Ambra Aurea (Golden Amber) by the Italian firm Profumum. This perfume is more resinous and less sweet than anything else in my testing group but it is definitely not medicinal in nature. It's what I would call an essential amber, nothing more and nothing less, strong and distinctive. I really liked it but oddly it had less longevity than any of the others on me, even though it's a straight-up amber that should have substantial lasting power. Even so, I liked it a lot and it can be worn in public without frightening the horses.
Speaking of essential, the one I think of as the baseline of amber scents is Etro's Ambra, very sweet and redolent and all amber, all the time. As the saying goes, look up amber in the dictionary and you will find its picture there. It's not very complex to my nose, but it is pleasant, just not my cup of tea. If I wore it at all it would have to be in winter when the days are cold and dry to mitigate the richness of this very popular fragrance.
Climbing up the amber pyramid we come to Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, one of the definitive amber scents of the past two decades. Released in 1993, it is one of the signature perfumes of the Lutens line. It is indeed huge, yet dark and spicy with an herbal aspect, not just a big hit of sweetness. Its complexity kept me fascinated for hours. I am not sure I could really wear this; I think it would wear me instead, but I want a bottle just so I can take it out and sniff it when I get the craving, or wear it to bed as a comfort scent. It's certainly a unisex perfume as all the Lutens fragrances are intended to be, and I can imagine the kind of man who could pull this one off; he would have to have a lot of confidence and a big personality to match the fragrance.
Could there be another amber as big as the Lutens? Oh yes, and it's the last stop on my amber tour, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier's Ambre Precieuse. Did I mention that it's BIG? This thing does not take any prisoners; it captures the attention of everyone within range of its considerable clout. This is the kind of amber perfume that made me afraid of them in the first place, but now I had to face it down. It begins more quietly than Ambre Sultan but this one really reacts with my skin to really ramp up the sweetness more than that one does, so on other people the Lutens might be stronger. The really scary part is that it is nominally an Eau de Toilette so I can't even imagine what a more concentrated version would be like. It opens with a strong lavender note, and then when that subsides in comes the amber, and lots of it. As with Ambre Sultan, the quality of the ingredients is immediately apparent and it smells mostly very natural to me. Since it is winter now, I can wear it fairly well, but it would not do for summer at all. Eventually the lavender is conquered by the amber's power and the scent is extremely long lasting.
Now that I have come this far and lived through it, there are yet more ambers to explore – one of these days I really want to smell the Big Daddy of them all, the famously gourmand Hermessence Ambre Narguile. It's not sold in stores near me so I can't just try it out, but with my new found appreciation of amber perfumes I am more curious than ever. I suspect it's too much for me to actually wear, but it's on my list of things to smell before I die – even if it kills me.
Image credit: Eye of an Eagle Owl by user Woodwalker from Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.
Disclaimer: All the fragrances described in this post were either tried in a store, sent to me by a perfumer for testing or received in swaps with other perfume enthusiasts.