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Monday, December 20, 2010

My Final Perfume Frontier: Coming to Terms with Amber

By Donna

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amber is one of my favorite notes, but I find that I don't love it universally---for example, I liked Etro's Ambra, but felt no compulsion to own it. It felt a little screechy to me (kind of the opposite of the cozy comfort amber is known for); on the other hand, Annick Goutal's Ambre Fetiche is to die for. I cannot now imagine living without it, and I suspect I'll be guilty of wearing well past seasonal decency!
Another favorite amber is PG's L'Ombre Fauve, which is devastatingly sensual.

I'm so glad that a bona fide amber-hater is coming around! Maybe I'll re-try the tuberoses...

6:55 AM EST  
Blogger queen_cupcake said...

I love some ambers (vintage Tigress, yes!) but not all of the ones I've tried. The problem for me is the unrelenting sweetness I sometimes get. Interesting to read of your changing tastes. Love the owl eye!

8:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Victoria said...

A wonderful selection of ambers! I am so happy that you mention Sublime, which is one of the best Patou fragrances. To me, it is a pure, molten gold.

Amberesse from Anya's Garden Perfumes is lovely! So radiant!

9:04 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! I love ambers. Though some say it is reminiscent of Ambre Sultan, it really is different. It's very peppery, very incense-y but also incredible deep, dark, and rich. It is a must try IMO. :) It's funny, Ambre Nargile never really makes me think of amber. Close friends who comment on things I'm wearing always say I smell like apple pie when wearing it. I agree with deeHowe above: Ambre Fetiche should be experienced as well... there's something almost leathery about it which sets it apart. Another I think that is worth mentioning is Montale's Blue Amber which has gigantic sillage on me but it's lighter. I always think of freshly baked sugar cookies.

Thanks for writing. I always love reading opinions about ambers! :)


9:10 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, in editing my comment above somehow the name of the first fragrance I was writing about got left out... Tom Ford Amber Absolute :)
- Anthony

9:11 AM EST  
Blogger StyleSpy said...

I'm an amber gal, I lovelovelove 'em. I like them as dry as possible - Ambre Sultan is my index amber with its herbal smokiness. I think TF's Ambre Absolute is very reminiscent of AS. I was utterly underwhelmed by the Balmain - I felt it was a cop-out amber. Ambre Fetiche is wonderful, it starts off with a big, wicked leather note. I also recommend Ambra del Nepal, a beautiful soft almond-y amber that is gentle without being sweet. Ambre Narguile barely counts as an amber for me - it's boozy tobacco. Also lovely - Rocher's Voile d'Ambre, which is a light lovely amber with lots of floral notes.

Mmmmmmm... all this amber talk - I have to go do some sniffing now.

9:34 AM EST  
Blogger Marina said...

Donna, you intrigued me with Amberesse!
How about Ambre Russe, AG Ambre Fetiche, LAP L'Eau d'Ambre?

11:10 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is definitely amber weather! Vintage L'Origan is really comforting. This week, I've been bouncing around between LAP Ambre Extreme, vintage Shalimar, and layering Donna Karan Labdanum over various samples just for the fun of it. Tom Ford's Tuscan Leather likes being layered with ambery notes-- this morning, I layered it with vintage Caron Infini, and it is really highlighting the amber note in the Infini. Thanks for the list-- I'm going to make a special trip to check out the Hermes--mary

11:23 AM EST  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

I do enjoy listening to your round-up of these ambers. I, too, am a fan of amber. Similar to your path, I waited until recently to give Big Daddy (Ambre Narguile) a go. It is big, it is somewhat gourmand...but -- perhaps because my tolerance is now up? -- it wasn't a monster. (I'm going to emphasize that BIG, though. 'Cause it is.)

Glad to see Style Spy give a shout out to the Yves Rocher; it's my secret weapon in my wardrobe. An easy amber that doesn't challenge, but is quite nice and has prompted more than one perfume fan to lean in and say "Hey, you smell good; what is that?"

I'm wondering if I should mention SSS Tabac Aurea doesn't skimp on the tobacco...but with that twist, is a lovely deep amber.

12:07 PM EST  
Blogger Deborah Lawrenson said...

Thank you so much for this!
Please scroll down to the last paragraph of this post on my blog for why...

12:11 PM EST  
Blogger Carrie Meredith said...

I also love Anya's Garden Amberess. Really love it. I used to be really into amber scents, and then I think I burnt myself out, because I developed an aversion to it. Amberess is what's bringing me back, and I realize it's a matter of certain ambers (namely the more powdery ones) not working on my skin. So, I have to tread lightly.

1:45 PM EST  
Blogger tarleisio said...

Amber was one of those notes I had the hardest time comprehending. Not that it isn't often lovely - it is. It was just that whole...death-by-cupcake aspect of it that made my stomach turn. I could have sworn this was a condition I was doomed to for life, until I met...Ambre Sultan. Whether it's the herbal/smoky incense/all round complications of it, or just that it's so unusual, it's an amber that even I can love. Alas, I shall never be the amber sophisticate - much as I've tried, and I have, it's the only amber I've ever liked. I know I'm missing out. But I. Just. Can't.

2:53 PM EST  
Blogger Brian said...

Ambre Fetiche is the bomb, and I only wish Precieux did on my skin what it seems to do on yours. Ambre Russe is pretty divine too. It has a nice rum-tea-honey sucker punch to it.

7:45 PM EST  
Blogger jensun said...

Annick Goutal's Ambre Fetiche is my current obsession. :)

8:45 PM EST  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

Beautiful Donna,
Have you tried Amberleah yet by Dabney Rose? It's incredible..just blends with your skin scent in the most subtle sexy way....

10:53 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone! Lots of amber fans out there!

To everyone who suggested I try Ambre Fetiche: I only smelled it once, briefly, at a store that has now closed, so I could not include it as one that I had tried on my skin. The AG scents usually do it for me so I must try it again soon!

Ambre Russe is also on my to-do list.

deeHowe: please do go and try those tuberoses, just steer clear of Amarige....

queen_cupcake - yes, the sweetness is hard for me too, I don't like the ones that are so sweet that I get nothing else. (And I have a thing for owls!)

Victoria, I think that Amberesse alone could have made me an amber fan!

Thanks Anthony! I am always open to suggestions. That Montale is a mighty one too, but I have not smelled it for a long time, guess I better revisit.

StyleSpy: am I turning into an amber gal too? Who knew! Ambra del Nepal sounds divine. :-)

Marina, I never heard of LAP L'Eau d' Ambre, but I had better add it to the list (furiously making notes.....)

Mary, it's a good thing I got started on the amber kick in December! I would never have thought of layering an amber scent with Infini(which I adore), you are very creative!

ScentSelf, I did get a sample of Tabac Aurea a while back and I loved it! So many ambers, so little time.

Deborah, how delightful! Thanks for sharing!

Carrie, powdery perfumes of any kind, amber or not, are my bete noir, and I do prefer the non-powdery ambers. Amberessse is a true gem.

tarleisio, I can certainly understand that, and if Ambre Sultan is the only amber you like, it's definitely all you need!

Brian: rum-tea-honey? I am on board!

Jen, everyone seems to feel that way!

Beth: thank you, and no, I have not tried Amberleah yet. I am going to need a bigger list..... :-)

2:00 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:01 AM EST  
Blogger Ducks said...

Ambre Narguile is my husband's signature scent -- and is wonderful on him. You must, must, must smell it.

1:23 PM EST  

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