Imagine diving into a pool. You fall head long into rich, heady, salty, sweet, slightly smoky, dense but smooth, creamy, caramel waters. Fifteen minutes later, when you get out, your skin is coated with an almost translucent, airy haze of gold. That shimmering touch made me think of James Bond’s villain, Goldfinger, who would undoubtedly approve of the golden Ambre 114, a fragrance from the extremely talented (and sadly under-appreciated) French niche perfume house, Histoires de Parfums.
In fact, if Goldfinger had been an actual person, he would have been the perfect inspiration for a perfume house that seeks to capture the essence of famous characters and mythical years in a bottle. Histoires de Parfums was founded in 2000 by Gérald Ghislain who seems to be on a mission to create lyrical perfumed tributes to history. As the Histoires de Parfums website explains, each of the early fragrances was entitled just with a date in history, the year in which a legendary figure was born, with attention being paid to everyone from the Marquis de Sade and Casanova, to Mata Hari and Ernest Hemingway. One of the few exceptions to the rule, however, is Histoires de Parfums’ Cult Books Collection which is intended to be a timeless interpretation of the issue of sensuality from the East to the West. In the case of Ambre 114, it is the East who is speaking, giving “an oriental vision of voluptuousness” that is centered around sweetened amber done in the airiest of manners.
The company’s description for Ambre 114, along with its notes, is as follows:
This mythical raw material improves a 114-element composition. A caravanserai of scents for this hot oriental intensifying the natural sensuality of grey amber, sweet perfume and tinted with exoticism.
In the Orient, women used to burn incenses, myrrh and amber. It is an oriental vision of voluptuousness.
Top Note: Thyme, Nutmeg
Heart Note: Rose, Geranium, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Cedar, Vetiver
Base Note: Amber, Vanilla, Tonka Bean, Benzoin, Musk.
Ambre 114 opens on my skin with a powerful burst of ambergris. For those who haven’t experienced it, ambergris is a very different kettle of fish from the usual “amber” found in most fragrances. Extremely rare and unbelievably expensive, genuine ambergris has a salty, sweet, musky quality that is almost (just barely) sweaty and marshy in feel. It’s hard to explain, but the aroma is intensely rich, smooth, buttery and deep. On my skin, it almost invariably smells of salted caramel, and Ambre 114 is no exception. The fragrance shows off all of ambergris’ beautiful features in a bouquet that is strongly infused with patchouli. The latter is dark, dense, almost dirty, with a chewiness like the thickest brownie. The patchouli is just lightly smoky and spicy, creating a visual swirl of black with red and gold. When mixed with the ambergris, the result is Ambre 114′s primary bouquet on my skin: salty-sweet, musky, caramelized amber with chewy, smoky, spicy, black patchouli.
Ambre 114′s main duo is lightly sprinkled with green notes in the opening 20 minutes. There is a definite herbal component to the scent, though it never smells of thyme to me. Instead, it feels more generalized, abstract, and indistinct in nature. For a brief moment, though, there was something almost minty lurking about the golden ambered bouquet. Whatever the herbs may be, they occasionally have a slightly medicinal undertone, though it’s extremely light and muted. It’s almost like you’ve entered an old Chinese holistic shop filled with dried herbs, instead of a medical one, if that makes any sense.
The herbs aren’t the only green elements in Ambre 114. There is vetiver as well, though there is something odd about it in the opening moments. I can only describe the aroma as an earthy “meatiness.” I think the earthy, rooty vetiver must have combined with the salty, slightly mushy, musky aspects of the ambergris to create an aroma that is almost truffle-like in its undertones. Whatever its source, the aroma is just a brief flicker that dies away after about five minutes. A much stronger note is the geranium, though it’s not the flower so much as the fuzzy green leaves. They add a wonderfully peppered, slightly spicy piquancy to the scent, ensuring that the scent’s sweetness never turns cloying or excessive.
In the background, there are flickers of other things, too. There is nutmeg, adding a slightly bitter edge that, again, helps counter the sweetness from the ambergris. Faint touches of vanilla lurk in the base, while far, far below is the merest suggestion of a floral note. It’s peppered, but it’s not geranium, and it definitely doesn’t smell like a rose, either.
All these elements are really just supporting players on a stage dominated by the waltzing ambergris and patchouli. Ambre 114′s primary and dominant bouquet on my skin is salty-caramel sweetness mixed with smoky patchouli. It’s rich, plush, warm and sweet, but never truly gourmand or dessert-like in nature. Ambre 114′s core essence remains largely unchanged on my skin, though the degree and strength of some of its notes — especially the secondary notes — vary in significance. After about 20 minutes, the vanillic resin (benzoin) slowly starts to rise to the surface. It dilutes some of the ambergris’ musky, salty qualities, and adds further sweetness. There is a touch of light powder underlying it, too, but it’s never like makeup powder and certainly not very heavy.
In fact, nothing about the scent is heavy at all. Though the fragrance is very potent for the first forty minutes, it’s astonishingly light in feel. Ambre 114 is effortlessly refined, smooth, creamy, heady, cozy, comforting and sexy — all in a billowing, soft cloud that coats your skin like a gold sheath. It’s not an easy trick to take such heavy ingredients and turn them into air, while still keeping the scent very strong. I’ll be honest, it’s actually too airy for my personal tastes; yet, there is also something quite appealing about how effortlessly Ambre 114 surrounds you like the thinnest but softest cashmere sweater. You can only admire the talented touch who created it.
Ambre 114 slowly changes. Forty minutes in, many of the notes have melted into the amber. The geranium, herbs, nutmeg, and earthy, green vetiver have vanished. The ghostly impression of something floral faded away long ago. Even the patchouli seems to have taken a back seat to the ambergris. Much more noticeable, however, is the vanilla resin, along with its light touch of sweetened powder. The whole thing becomes a beautifully blended swirl of notes, dominated by the ambergris. By the middle of the third hour, however, Ambre 114 has lost its caramel aroma, and is now primarily a sweet, slightly musky amber with vanilla. There are bursts of patchouli that pop up every now and then, if you sniff really hard, along with a sprinkling of sandalwood. The fragrance remains that way for a number of hours until the end of the fifth hour when it turns into an abstract, vague, generalized blur of sweet amber with some vanilla powder and perhaps the faintest suggestion of sandalwood.
All in all, Ambre 114 lasted 7.5 hours on my perfume-consuming skin. The sillage was never enormous to begin with, but it drops even further after 90-minutes. At the end of the third hour, Ambre 114 hovers right above the skin, though you can easily smell its golden notes if you bring your nose to your arm. By the start of the fifth hour, Ambre 114 intimately coats the skin like the sheerest, thinnest gauze, and is increasingly hard to detect. This is not a powerful projection monster, by any means.
Ambre 114 shares a few similarities to some other amber fragrances. Parts of the opening evoked Serge Lutens‘ pioneering Ambre Sultan, but Ambre 114 is a faint, ghostly whisper of that fragrance’s famously potent, intense herbal blast. Plus, Ambre Sultan is really an ode to labdanum, not ambergris, and there is a substantial difference in the two resins’ amber smell. Ambre 114 also reminded me of my favorite amber of them all: Profumum Roma‘s Ambra Aurea. The primary reason is that salty-sweet, marshy, musky, caramel aroma from the ambergris which dominates both scents. That’s where the similarities end, however, as Ambra Aurea lacks Ambre 114′s vanilla and powdery elements, and also has a significantly different weight. Ambra Aurea is like the richest, heaviest fur coat you can buy, while Ambre 114 is the softest, thin cashmere sweater.
Another perfume repeatedly comes up as a point of comparison: Maître Parfumeur et Gantier’s Ambre Precieux. It’s an extremely well-known, much beloved amber that reportedly has a strong vanilla (and vanilla powder) component. I haven’t tried it, but thankfully, a friend has. The Scented Hound‘s review for Histoires de Parfums’ Ambre 114 amusingly states: “If Serge Luten’s Ambre Sultan and Maître Parfumeur et Gantier’s Ambre Precieux had a baby, this is what it would smell like.” He had a different experience with Ambre 114 than I did, so his description may be useful:
WHAT I SMELL: Almost icy/hot to the touch, Ambre 114 goes on medicinal; the thyme is very evident. Then as quickly as that leaves you, out comes the geranium note. I can tell that there’s a bit of amber in there, but I am getting more vetiver at the beginning than amber. Slowly, the spiciness then wafts up through the other notes. It starts to warm and then begins to open to that lovely rounded amber that any amber lover craves. What you are left with is a lovely vanilla’d creamed amber that wraps you in a wonderfully warmed blanket perfect for the long winter nights.
He really enjoyed Ambre 114, concluding that it was “lovely and if I didn’t own so many ambers at present, I probably would be buying a bottle. This is easily a comfort scent.” The Scented Hound is not alone in his opinion; almost every other blogger who has covered Ambre 114 either likes it or raves about it.
Even really picky perfume critics give it a thumbs up. Ambre 114 gets a Four Star mention in the famous perfume bible, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. The latter had a third type of experience with Ambre 114, one in which the rose note was quite prominent, judging by the perfume’s description as “benzoin rose.” The very brief review states:
A beautiful, durable amber accord built of benzoin, patchouli, vetiver and rose. Its transparent smoky sweetness feels weightless, as if hollowed out in the middle to make it float.
On Basenotes, Ambre 114 has a 100% positive rating. Out of 18 reviews, 78% give it Five Stars, 11% give it Four, and 11% give it Three. The main issues leading to some hesitation were that the fragrance was “too simple,” and “weak on longevity.” One positive review, from “alfarom,” reads:
Amber is a dangerous territory where sweetness can easily become overwhelming turning a fragrance into an unbrearable heaviness. The big point of strength of Amber 114 is its extremely balanced blend of spices/herbs and resionus notes (mainly benzoin) joined by woods and rose that make of this composition quite an easy wear in which sweetness is carefully tamed and dosed to become a side aspect. Overall I’d say that while Ambre 114 can be considered as one of the most complex and deep ambers around, at the same time it is outstanding for its incredible wearability and “lightness”. These things don’t happen by accident. Amazing Stuff!
I think he’s right about the lightness, but I experienced a much simpler, more linear scent that he did. It certainly wasn’t “complex” by any means.
What’s interesting to me about reading other people’s accounts of the scent is how extreme the different experiences or perspectives can be. Some think Ambre 114 is a deliciously gourmand, sweet scent. Others — including one chap who explicitly states that he “abhor[s] super-sweet amber scents” — don’t think the fragrance is sweet at all. Some commentators detect the rose, while others join the Scented Hound and me in not smelling any, or in experiencing a lot of nutmeg instead. Half the commentators, including those who give the fragrance five stars, think Ambre 114 has below average projection and so-so longevity, while others have the opposite opinion. One commentator says “You can get a clear 15+ hours out of this” — which really makes me wonder just how much he sprayed!
On one of the many, many Basenotes threads discussing Ambre 114, I came across something else I found interesting. People who don’t generally like amber fragrances like Ambre 114. I’m guessing the cozy vanilla is partially responsible, because Ambre 114 isn’t really a hardcore, spicy oriental fragrance in my opinion. It’s definitely more of a comfort scent that straddles the line between Oriental and Gourmand. The other factors in swaying amber-haters may be just how light, airy, and discreet the scent is. People who don’t like amber fragrances generally seem to struggle with the weight, or find the note to be too much. It’s either too sweet, too spicy, too rich, or some combination of the above. Ambre 114 avoids all that, as it is a very uncomplicated, safe, gauzy, approachable scent. Plus, its extremely soft sillage makes it a scent that a number of people have said they feel comfortable wearing to the office.
Another positive is that Ambre 114 is quite affordable for such a high-quality scent, at least relative to most niche fragrances. The smallest size is 2 oz/60 ml and retails for $125, whereas most niche perfumes start with 1.7 oz /50 ml and often cost quite a bit more. Plus, it’s not hard to find retailers who carry a practical, travel-size 14 ml decant of the perfume that you can buy for $36. (See below in the Details section.) The decant is an affordable way to enjoy the perfume a good number of times while you decide if it’s worth buying a full bottle.
All in all, I like Ambre 114 quite a bit, though it will never be my favorite amber. For me, personally, it’s too translucent and light, the sillage is too low, the longevity on my wonky skin isn’t great, and I don’t think it is distinctive enough. The extremely long-lasting Ambra Aurea suits my style and tastes much more, especially as it’s centered almost completely around salty-sweet, musky caramel and the ambergris isn’t diluted by vanilla. However, I think if I’d experienced some of the rose or woods that people talk about, my views on Ambre 411 might well be different. It might have the edge that would make it stand out and feel a little more interesting. Regardless, I think Ambre 114 is a beautifully blended, well-balanced, extremely cozy fragrance that feels very effortless and is very easy to wear. As ambers go, it’s a refined, elegant take on the note, and I thoroughly enjoyed wearing it.
In short, I definitely recommend Ambre 114 for those of you who are looking for a light amber fragrance that doesn’t overwhelm you, is soft spoken, appropriate for the office, and very cozy in nature. Its warm sweetness and feathery softness feel very much like that favorite sweater that you wear when you want to curl up, relax, and be absolutely comfortable.
On that note, I will leave you with the song that has been in my head since the start of this review: Dame Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger.” It’s not the best audio version, but you’ll see the famous woman in gold, along with a young Sean Connery as 007. Ambre 114 has the golden touch, as well.