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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Balmain Ambre Gris: At Long Last Love

By Donna

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,

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Blogger Ines said...

Your review just made me feel better. I bought a bottle after a smellathon when I realized my wrist smelled wonderful after I spent half an hour trying unsuccessfully different things. So I just grabbed a bottle of this and now it sits on my shelf because each time I smell the opening, I realize that it's not the smell I bought and I'm scared of putting it on.
Well, now I know what to do. :) I'll just wait it out.

4:32 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently bought a bottle of this, found it very difficult to find in Melbourne! I love it, luckiyl I don't get much of that synthetic note it's all warm and cosiness on me ♥

4:46 AM EST  
Blogger Tatyana said...

**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.)**

o-oh, I'm not alone. :) I really do dislike these ubiquitous washing powder's notes in modern scents, and they are anywhere...
I like Amber Gris too.

5:55 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had my eye on this for a while now and have just been given some for Valentine's Day. I love it. I also have the body cream which certainly gives the perfume a bit more back up re: staying power and strength. A really lovely easy perfume to have on during the day although I probably wouldn't use it for the evening. I agree with it being a colder weather choice I too would not think it a Summer perfume. Thumbs up all round... really comfortable to wear.

7:36 AM EST  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Donna, I understand what you mean.

One way to get more mileage out of this, is to layer w/ other scents....

When coupled w/ Madini Ambar Gris- just a touch !-
The effect is much more complete and pleasurable.

8:29 AM EST  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Donna, I understand what you mean.

One way to get more mileage out of this, is to layer w/ other scents....

When coupled w/ Madini Ambar Gris- just a touch !-
The effect is much more complete and pleasurable.

8:30 AM EST  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

I'm going to try this very soon mixed with a touch of Magie Noire....and I'm going to try it in the Sonoran desert. For some reason that dry heat seems to bring out the best in fragrances like these (on my skin). I'll report back to you!

For the record..I love that bottle! Absolutely gorgeous review Donna!

9:58 AM EST  
Blogger Marko said...

Donna -

I love it when Ambre Gris gets some positive strokes! I was lucky enough to score a bottle of this REALLY cheap online right when it started showing up at the discount sites a few years ago.....and it has been a staple of mine ever since. And you are so right - one has to wait a while for the scent to develop and meld into the skin to truly enjoy the experience. I guess I better stock up on this.....I don't like the idea of this fragrance being "Out Of Stock" at so many online don't suppose they would discontinue such a gem, do you?


10:35 AM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

I did like this one. just not enough to purchase a full bottle.

But then again I'm not purchasing much of anything in full bottles these days...

12:18 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Ines, it's really worth the wait!

1:21 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

TheLipPrint, thanks for commenting. I am glad it works so well for you. My skin chemistry seems to highlight those synthetic notes so I imagine it is different for most other people.

1:22 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Tatyana, I really hope that the "clean" trend goes away soon, or at least that it does not keep showing up in better quality perfumes, where we do not expect to find it.

1:24 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Anonymous, I had no idea there was body cream available for this fragrance! I have never seen that for sale in the U.S. That sounds perfectly wonderful, especially for winter.

1:25 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Chaya, that is a fabulous suggestion! I adore the Madini oils. That one sounds like something I would love to wear all by itself!

1:27 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Beth! That bottle - I would almost buy this perfume just to have it. :-)

Do let me know how this works in desert heat. I am intrigued!

1:28 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Lucky you, Marko! We all should have grabbed it while we could I guess.

I don't think this is going to be discontinued, since it's Balmain's marquee fragrance right now. None of their perfumes seem to get a lot of publicity other than in the perfume industry itself. I don't recall ever seeing a magazine ad for it,let alone television placement. Too bad only the celebrity scents seem to get that treatment these days.

1:32 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Tom, me neither, for both!

If i can get this for a discount I will buy it one of these days, but now I will be on the hunt for the body cream that Anonymous mentioned. That seems like an ideal, and more affordable, way to go for a perfume of this style.

1:34 PM EST  
Blogger elle said...

I impulsively bought this when it was easily available at a discount site. Am glad I did now that you say it's no longer easily available - as if I needed more encouragement for my stockpiling obsession. :-) I'm glad you reminded me of it. Need to go dig it out and wear it while I impatiently await spring's arrival. Oh, and I'm w/ you in enjoying the bottle design.

6:40 PM EST  
Blogger weegee said...

I ordered my 2nd and 3rd bottles the same day the 1st bottle arrived in the mail. The references to cashmere and sweaters -- soft, cuddly, warm things -- are spot-on. This isn't "show-off amber", not "strip-tease amber"; no, it's "come sit next to me by the fire and be comfortable amber". So nice. So very, very nice.

7:18 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Elle, it's just a bonus that it's such a good perfume, I could put that bottle on display I like it so much. :-)

8:42 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Weegee, I love your description, it's exactly right!

8:43 PM EST  
Anonymous Marian said...

As a lover of "real" ambergris- salty, animalic, dirty, briney- I was so excited to hear about the Balmain release. That initial excitement equalled my disappointment when I finally got to try it. Although I enjoy comfort scents, I want ambergris scents to take me on a sea adventure- one on which I'm not wrapped up in a cashmere blanket. Maybe if the same scent had been marketed with a different name I'd be able to appreciate it more.

10:32 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Marian, I would love to smell some real, pure ambergris, but that seems like a fantasy these days!

11:55 PM EST  
Anonymous Aroma Chemicals said...

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2:39 AM EST  
Blogger Unknown said...

nice review, i'm sure next time i buy a perfume its gonna be this one.


9:50 PM EDT  

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