Stéphane Humbert Lucas 777 Khôl de Bahreïn: Ambered Iris

Photo: My own.

Photo: My own.

A golden, ambered sun peeks out from the clouds at the edge of a grey sea. Thickened, buttered waves of iris unfold like the most expensive suede, undulating under skies shot through with sweetened smoke. An iris flower floats on the surface, making a voyage from its cool, damp, earthy cellar towards the sun which warms it, turning it sweeter and sprinkling it with sweetened heliotrope. At times, the sun peaks out like golden eyes from behind the sheer veil of cool suede and warmed powdered sweetness. A giant orb of goldenness, speckled with ambergris, red resins, and candied delights. It shines upon the iris as it makes its journey and finally arrives at a distant shore of sweetness that cocoons it like the softest whisper of pink and white cashmere silk. These are the voyages of the Starship Iris, better known as Khôl de Bahreïn.

Stephane Humbert Lucas via CaFleureBon and Marieclaire.it.

Stephane Humbert Lucas via CaFleureBon and Marieclaire.it.

Khôl de Bahreïn is a fragrance from a new niche perfume house, founded by a man who has been making perfumes for quite a long time. Stéphane Humbert Lucas 777 is the new venture of Stéphane Humbert Lucas who was the in-house perfumer for Nez a Nez and SoOud. Mr. Lucas launched his new brand in 2013, along with 7 fragrances, all of which are inspired by the Middle East and their style of perfumery. Khôl de Bahreïn (which I’m going to henceforth write without all the accentuation and carets) was one of those scents.

There isn’t a ton of information out there about the perfume. Stéphane Humbert Lucas’s website is under construction, but his Middle Eastern distributor, Sagma, describes the scent as:

Source: Fragrantica

Source: Fragrantica

Blend of amber benzene.
Unguent with an intense trail.

Heavy perfume, unctuous, amber, reference to kohl and to the zenjar used in the region of Bahreïn.

First in Fragrance has more details, along with Khol de Bahrein’s notes:

Khôl de Bahreïn offers a blend of ambergris and resinous notes which create a balsamic-woody fragrance with an intense and lasting wake.

Top Note: Violet, Gourmand Notes, Resins
Heart Note: Iris, Sandalwood, Ambergris
Base Note: Musk, Balsamic Notes

Source: Soundcloud.com

Source: Soundcloud.com

Khol de Bahrein opens on my skin with a burst of sticky, dark resins that have a caramel, nutty aroma. Almost immediately, the iris appears on their heels. It feels like the most expensive, thick, orris butter imaginable, and has a smell that is simultaneously: slightly cool, earthy, buttery, deep, and warm, all at once. Something about it evokes the feeling of velvety petals — grey and black — along with thick, grey suede. The minute it arrives, the amber and resins take a step back to let the iris shine in the spotlight. Yet, subtle hints of benzoin sweetness lurk around the flower’s edges, as if candies are about to rain on earthy iris fields any moment now. A tiny wisp of smoke adds yet another paradoxical layer in this extremely unusual combination.

Five minutes in, the sweet elements seem to tire of their brief wait on the sidelines and flood center stage to crowd around the dark floral. I can’t really place the notes, as they are definitely not the “nougat” that I saw on one site’s ingredient list. “Caramel” doesn’t really fit exactly either, though it is closer. Perhaps, the best way to describe it is as vaguely sticky ambergris and toffee’d balsamic resins.

toffee caramal nougat close up wallpaper

Yet, for all the sweetness of the accord, Khol de Bahrein doesn’t verge on the gourmand for me. First, the competing elements are very carefully balanced, but, second, and more importantly, the iris counteracts the candied resins with its earthy coolness. It is a very refined note that conjures up images of a single flower growing in the slightly damp earth of a darkened cellar. Yet, it’s neither icy nor crypt-like. There is nothing fusty, carrot-y, or dank about it, either. Just plenty of cool notes with heavy suede and creamy butter.

Something about the combination of iris with sticky resins feels very unique to me, though I grant you that I don’t have extensive knowledge of the iris category. In fact, I wholly lack the iris appreciation gene, but I spend the next few hours being utterly amazed by the note in Khol de Bahrein. It really feels like an actual “butter” version of the flower with a heavily creamed richness that I haven’t encountered in other iris scents. Not even in Nuances, the limited-edition, ridiculously expensive Armani Privé Les Editions Couture iris soliflore that supposedly had the richest, most expensive, concentrated iris as its focus.

On my skin, in the opening period, the iris butter pretty much trumps everything. Violets are listed Khol de Bahrein’s notes, but I generally didn’t detect them. However, they did appear briefly the very first time I wore the perfume when I only applied a few dabs of Khol de Bahrein. It was a dewy, earthy, pastel, delicate note, but it was short-lived. When I applied a greater quantity of Khol de Bahrein, it certainly couldn’t seem to stand up to the strength of the other accords.

What was interesting about that first test was something else that happened. From the first instant, there was an utterly addictive, sweet, powdered amber. I’m not a particular fan of iris, and I’m also not enthused by powderiness either, but, I tell you, I simply could not stop sniffing my wrists. I felt almost crazed at times by the draw of Khol de Bahrein, and I’ve finally figured out what was the lure: it smelled like an ambered form of heliotrope.

Photo: Crystal Venters via Dreamtime.com

Photo: Crystal Venters via Dreamtime.com

Now, heliotrope is not listed on Khol de Bahrein’s notes, but something in one of those resins (undoubtedly a benzoin-based one) really recreates the smell of heliotrope to a T. And I’m a sucker for the note. Wholly addicted. I love its vaguely floral, powdered sweetness which always visually translates in my mind as a comforting pink and white cocoon. In fact, Fragrantica‘s great explanation of the note brings up its “characteristic, comforting scent.” Heliotrope has an powdery odor profile which can range from a vanilla meringue, to almond marzipan, tonka vanilla, and more. As Fragrantica put it,

The characteristic comforting scent of heliotrope has been proven to induce feelings of relaxation and comfort, a pampering atmosphere that finds itself very suited to languorous oriental fragrances and delicious “gourmands”.

I’m spending so much time on this because, in my opinion, that aroma is one of the secret keys to Khol de Bahrein’s beauty. In my first test, using very little of the perfume, Khol de Bahrein immediately wafted the most delicious, tasty, heliotrope amber confectionary aroma with just the perfect balance of sweetness and powder. It reminded me of a tonka-covered amber orb that glowed like candlelight in a cozy, warm, vanilla cocoon.

Source: nature.desktopnexus.com/

Source: nature.desktopnexus.com/

Khol de Bahrein gets to the exact same point eventually with the larger dosage, but there is a lengthy iris butter period that you have to get through first. Since, as noted above, I’m not a particular fan of iris scents, I don’t find it deeply compelling, but it’s very hard to deny the quality of the note. I’m actually quite riveted by the sheer opulence and richness of the flower. I repeatedly thought to myself that it felt like the sort of thing that Roja Dove would do, and I mean that as a compliment.

Thirty minutes in, that golden amber tantalizes me with its nearness and elusiveness. It lingers just out of reach on the horizon, like a gauzy veil of caramel that has been thinly lacquered onto a glowing orb of musky, vaguely salty, deep ambergris which is then lightly dusted with vanillic benzoin powder. Slowly, slowly, the amber sun starts to warm up the cool iris waters, softening their damp, aloof, earthiness. The flower turns more powdered, as if it were shaking off white pollen in the sunlight, but the predominant feel is of thick orris butter.

The amber’s promise lies hidden not only behind that note but also behind a new arrival on the scene: smokiness. It’s very subtle at first, but it’s definitely there. To my nose, it doesn’t smell like black frankincense but, rather, like sweet myrrh (opoponax). It’s a surprisingly sharp note, but also sweetened and vaguely nutty in undertone.

Photo via free-desktop-backgrounds.net, then edited by me.

Photo via free-desktop-backgrounds.net, then edited by me.

As a whole, Khol de Bahrein smells from afar like heavily sweetened iris, warm powder, sweet and incense lightly flecked by caramel resins and goldenness. The perfume is really potent up close, and very heavy in feel, with initially good sillage that wafts about 2-3 inches above the skin. By the end of the first hour, the sillage drops further, and Khol de Bahrein turns into a beautiful, seamless blend of ambered iris with subtle traces of sweetened iris powder and sweetened smoke. Yet, none of it feels gourmand. The perfume screams refinement and luxuriousness to me, not dessert or candy.

Photo: Grover Schrayer on Flicker. (Website link embedded within.)

Photo: Grover Schrayer on Flicker. (Website link embedded within.)

Khol de Bahrein is largely linear in nature with the main changes over time being the order and concentration of the notes, along with the perfume’s overall warmth and texture. The iris continues to lose its cool edge and that feeling of thick orris butter. It turns more and more into pure suede, at first thickly plush and heavy, then lighter as it sinks into the base. Khol de Bahrein’s sillage drops to just above the skin at the 90 minute mark. Around the same time, the amber sun finally comes out from behind the grey clouds, and the perfume now feels like vaguely irisy, powdered amber, instead of iris that is merely tangentially ambered. Something about Khol de Bahrein’s new golden aura strongly brought to mind Histoires de Parfums‘ billowy Ambre 114. I think anyone who enjoys the latter’s ambered softness, while also loving rich iris butter, would definitely love the combination of the two notes in Khol de Bahrein.

As the perfume continues to realign itself, that addictive part that I talked about earlier creeps closer and closer. About 2.5 hours in, the heliotrope impression finally arrives on the scene. Again, the perfume list does not mention heliotrope at all, but something in the benzoin resin alluded to by the Sagma distributor definitely recreates that smell. Khol de Bahrein is now sweetened, almost vanillic powdered amber with touches of sweetened suede that is lightly flecked by an equally sweet incense. It’s a bit like Ambre 114 with incense, but with every passing moment, a much stronger comparison would be to Guerlain‘s Cuir Beluga.

Source: qcorrell.com

Source: qcorrell.com

By the end of the 3rd hour, Khol de Bahrein is a dead ringer for Cuir Beluga on my skin, only with a touch of nebulous, abstract, incensey smoke. It has lost its ambered focus, and turned into pure “heliotrope” with sweetened suede. Khol de Bahrein doesn’t have heliotrope’s almond or marzipan nuances, but reflects instead its cozy, comforting, vanilla meringue facets. The amber now manifests itself largely as a sort of warmth which works really well with the textural softness of the “heliotrope” (or whatever resin is mimicking it). As a whole, the perfume feels like the cuddliest, cashmere blanket. Since heliotrope always visually translates in my mind to pink and white hues, the perfume now does the same.

I find it all utterly addictive, but I wish it weren’t so soft and discreet. The same problem that I had with Cuir Beluga is manifesting itself here, with a scent that lies right on the skin. That said, Khol de Bahrein is much stronger and more intense in its notes when sniffed up close. In fact, whenever I thought it had turned into a skin scent, I was surprised to detect little tendrils in the air about me. In particular, whenever I moved my arm or walked about, I could smell that vanilla meringue suede as an elusive whisper trailing in the air. It’s not my favorite way to smell a perfume, but Khol de Bahrein’s sheer weight and soft sillage turn out to be quite misleading in terms of the perfume’s strength.

Khol de Bahrein feels like undulating waves in more than one way. First, there was the iris butter that lapped about the shores. Then, as the iris retreated from its cool earthiness, the grey suede moved in. Later, the amber, and then, the “heliotrope”-like, benzoin meringue powder. Shortly after the start of the 6th hour, the waves change again, and the perfume turns drier. There are fluctuating levels of smokiness. Or, rather, the smokiness reappears again in a much stronger way, now that the heliotrope-like powdered sweetness has ebbed. Khol de Bahrein suddenly feels like a much drier, darker, somewhat smoky version of Cuir Beluga.  It is also a true skin at this point, and its subtleties are much harder to detect.

Source: hdwallpapers4desktop.com

Source: hdwallpapers4desktop.com

The subtle smokiness and incense don’t last long, however. Perhaps an hour at most. Then, Khol de Bahrein returns to its main core of powdered sweetness. The impression of iris suede as an underlying base vanishes completely. The perfume lingers as the silkiest, thinnest, gauziest breath of sweet benzoin on the skin for several more hours, until it finally dies away entirely about 12.5 hours from the start.

Frankly, I was amazed that it lasted so long, because it really is such a discreet, intimate scent for a good portion of its lifespan on my skin. Khol de Bahrein feels like the sort of fragrance that many people would think had only good longevity, not an excellent one, because they wouldn’t be walking around with their nose on their arm. However, I’m sure that spraying and the use of a large amount would help matters, as the perfume really is quite concentrated when smelled up close.

Source: hdwallpapers4desktop.com

Source: hdwallpapers4desktop.com

I think Khol de Bahrein is a really lovely, luxurious, very expensive-smelling fragrance, and I say that as someone with little personal appreciation for iris. I do think, however, that it skews feminine. My reasoning is that I don’t see the vast majority of men really being into powdered iris as the dominant focus for their fragrance. I admit, it’s a wholly subjective, personal interpretation, and I certainly know some men who adore Cuir Beluga, as well as many iris-centered fragrances. I’m sure a few would thoroughly enjoy a more iris-y, oriental, less gourmand, and, at times, more smoky take on Cuir Beluga. For the vast majority of men, though, I think Khol de Bahrein might feel a little feminine. It’s really going to come down to your feelings on both iris and powdery notes, not to mention skin chemistry.

One man who absolutely loves Khol de Bahrein is Mark Behnke who wrote about the perfume while he was the Managing Editor of CaFleureBon. Mr. Behnke first smelled the new Stéphane Humbert Lucas 777 line at the Milan Esxence show in 2013, and Khol de Bahrein was the one which really piqued his interest. He liked it right from the start, but once he managed to test it fully and properly, he seems to have fallen quite in love. He actually called Khol de Bahrein one of the best perfumes of 2013:

after having worn it quite a bit I know it to be one of the best perfumes of this year and the best perfume of M. Lucas’ career, so far.

The name Khol de Bahrein refers to the dark eye makeup often seen in the Middle East and North Africa. Elizabeth Taylor sported kohl rimmed eyes for her portrayal of Cleopatra. Also they are often the only part of a Muslim woman you can see when she is out and about. The darkness around the eyes causing them to feel like they almost float within the hijab. M. Lucas has created a fragrance framed in darkness with the depth of a human eye in the middle. Khol de Bahrein is as mesmerizing as a hypnotist’s stare; you will find yourself lost in its spell.

The photo Mr. Behnke used to illustrate Khol de Bahrein. Source: derbund.ch

The photo Mr. Behnke used to illustrate Khol de Bahrein. Source: derbund.ch

The metaphorical eyes of Khol de Bahrein are as lavender as Liz Taylor’s were. The opening uses violet at the core but is surrounded with a resinous frame of dark incense. The one thing I appreciate about all of the Stephane Humbert Lucas 777 fragrances is there is no gentle step down to intensity. No flare of citrus or bergamot; instead it as bracing as stepping into a cold shower, it catches your attention. I love violet and the interplay of resins and violet are wonderfully woven. Then the purple of the iris deepened by the note of orris. Lush and opulent it is made buoyant with the addition of a creamy sandalwood and briny ambergris. This really feels like the real stuff on the ambergris, no ambrox here. The final touch of blackness comes from amber, balasamic notes, and musk. There is a feel of humanity in the last accord. The eyes may be all you see but they are worth getting lost within.

Khol de Bahrein has ridiculous almost 24-hour longevity and above average sillage. The sillage is surprising for something at extrait strength.

I hope this piques the interest of those of you who have never heard of M. Lucas. If you’re looking for a new perfumer to explore I can recommend nobody any higher. As one who has come to enjoy his style let me reiterate; Khol de Bahrein is the best perfume of M. Lucas’ career and one of the best new perfumes of 2013.

Mr. Behnke’s review is the only one I could find for Khol de Bahrein. The perfume has no comments on its Fragrantica page. There are also no reviews posted on Khol de Bahrein’s entry at Parfumo (a European sort of Fragrantica). However, there are a lot of votes for the perfume at Parfumo that I think you might find interesting, as they pertain to perceptions of overall quality, sillage, and longevity:

  • Scent: 80% (12 Ratings)
  • Longevity: 88% (12 Ratings)
  • Sillage: 67% (13 Ratings)

An overall 80% favorability rating is really quite good, though I’m apparently not alone in my feelings about the sillage.

Khol de Bahrein comes with some drawbacks, primarily in terms of accessibility. This is a perfume that is a European and Middle Eastern exclusive, though American readers can test it easily by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance. It’s not even widely available within Europe itself, with only a handful of distributors for the line. First in Fragrance is your best bet, and, thankfully, they ship worldwide.

The other issue is the price, though I think that can easily be justified when put into context. Khol de Bahrein costs €148 for a small 50 ml bottle. At the current rate of exchange, that comes to roughly $203, which is a teensy bit high for the size. However, Khol de Bahrein is a fragrance that its Middle Eastern distributor, the Sagma corporation, states is pure parfum extrait with 24% concentration.

Source: Sagma Corp.

Source: Sagma Corp.

Plus, there is that bottle. Judging by the photos, it looks gorgeous and I must say, I rather lust for it. Pure gold lettering and a gold metal cap with a Swarovski crystal. First in Fragrance has the full details on the very elaborate packaging:

Khôl de Bahreïn is presented in a transparent flacon with genuine gold lettering, gold cap and a small-faceted peach-coloured Swarovski crystal set on the stylized crown.

The 777 Metal cap 
A raised honeycomb pressed against a dome reminiscent of two architectures (Ottoman and Russian) where the sharp point brings to mind the summit, the sacred. The triple 7 is continued on the ring of the cap, it signifies: Spirituality, protection, luck. The figure 7 is the author’s fetish. The 777 logo is also engraved within the heart of the honeycomb. The raised facets represent work, determination and well-being. The significant weight of the cap imparts respect and strength. The cap is hand-milled, anodised and varnished.

777 Coffret by Stéphane Humbert Lucas
The box has been created using a double-coated black leather effect paper decorated with hot-stamped letters and logo. The 777 theme is taken up on the interior of the flap, followed by a short poem written by the author.

Source: Fragrantica

Source: Fragrantica

So, to some extent, a good chunk of that €148/$203 price tag must stem from the packaging, but you shouldn’t forget about the Extrait concentration. Or the opulence of that iris butter which, frankly, probably costs more than any Swarovski crystals. When you consider that Tom Ford’s flimsy, anemic Atelier d’Orient eau de parfums are priced at $210 for the same size (but much simpler looking) bottle, Khol de Bahrein almost seems like a steal. And I won’t even bring up Armani’s suffocating, claustrophobic, painfully dull iris soliflore, Nuances, in its Privé Couture line. (It’s £500, if you’re interested.)

Is Khol de Bahrein a complicated, revolutionary, edgy scent? No. It’s not trying to be. It wants to be a refined, luxurious statement that reflects a Middle Eastern sensibility. As someone who has actually lived in the region, I found Khol de Bahrein to be as Middle Eastern as Guerlain — which is to say, not at all. However, it definitely reflects a French sensibility and the feel of French haute perfumerie. A highly refined scent with very expensive, pure ingredients that are blended seamlessly to create the feel of pampered luxuriousness. Plus, it happens to have cozily delicious parts on top of it all. If I were ever to wear an iris scent, it would probably be Khol de Bahrein. Really lovely!

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Khol de Bahrein is an Extrait or pure parfum that comes only in a stunning 50 ml bottle that costs €148. I haven’t found any U.S. distributors for the scent. Stéphane Humbert Lucas’ website is under construction, and doesn’t have an e-store. Outside the U.S.: you can order Khol de Bahrein from First in Fragrance, though shipping will be delayed until after March 7th. They also offer a sample, and global shipping. Zurich’s Osswald also carries the line and lists Khol de Bahrein on its website, but I don’t think they have an e-store any more. The Swiss perfumery, Theodora, also has the perfume, but no e-store. In the Middle East, there is a UAE distributor called Sagma Corp that carries the full line, but they don’t have an e-store. However, you can buy Khol de Bahrein from Souq.com for AED 1,500. In Russia, Khol de Bahrein is available at Lenoma. It is also listed on the ry7 website, but I’m unclear as to its availability. Ukraine’s Sana Hunt Luxury store also carries it, but they don’t have an e-store. Samples: I obtained my sample from Surrender to Chance which sells Khol de Bahrein starting at $4.75 for a 1/2 ml vial.

Perfume Review- Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan

Serge Lutens tells you up front to expect something different:

This fragrance is not an Oriental, but an Arab and a Lutens. That being the case, don’t expect it to fit in. [Emphasis added.]

Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

He’s right. For a large number of people, Ambre Sultan is not a typical amber, and some get a small shock upon first sniffing it. They expect something soft, cozy, sweetly vanillic, and gentle, but end up with a very herbal, almost medicinal, fragrance in the beginning.

I had a different experience, however, and it was a far cry from the “Chinese medicine” or “herbal spice shop” amber that I had expected. Yes, it was there to a minuscule, muted degree, but it lasted less than ten minutes and it was hardly a predominant aspect of the fragrance. Instead, on my skin, Ambre Sultan was primarily a labdanum and beeswax fragrance. It’s very nice, but it’s not the amber of my heart, and I don’t share in the view that it is the best, richest amber fragrance around. 

Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan regular photo

Ambre Sultan, 50 ml bottle.

Ambre Sultan is an eau de parfum that was created with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and that was originally released in 1993 before becoming available worldwide in 2000. The remainder of Serge Lutens’ description quoted up at the top is really key in understanding the perfume, in my opinion: 

The point of departure was a scented wax, found in a souk and long forgotten in a wooden box. The amber only became sultanesque after I reworked the composition using cistus, an herb that sticks to the fingers like tar, then added an overtone that nobody had ever dreamed of: vanilla. Why? Because vanilla is sticky, too, and it clung to my memory.

As usual, Uncle Serge provides no notes for the perfume, but Fragrantica says that they consist of:

coriander, bay leaf, oregano, angelica, resins, myrrh, amber, myrtle, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin and vanilla.

Labdanum compiled into a chunk. Source: Fragrantica

Labdanum compiled into a chunk. Source: Fragrantica

Fragrantica leaves out the most important part: the cistus or labdanum discussed by Serge Lutens. It’s not accurate enough, in my opinion, to just mention “amber” because, to me, labdanum is a whole other creature. The three main resins generally used in oriental fragrances to create the amber smell are: labdanum, ambergris, and benzoins. (Tolu Balsam is another, but it’s not so common.)

Labdanum has a very specific, intense aroma that is nothing like the general, more commercial, easy “amber” mélanges found in many scents. It’s much more masculine with a nutty, toffee, darkly syrupy, sticky, honeyed, sometimes leathery aroma that is almost dirty in nature. It can also be very animalistic on occasion, and frequently musky; in many cases, it can feel almost raw, at least relative to the generic ambers used in some perfumes. Dark brown, verging on black in colour, labdanum is the heart of some of the most-beloved, oriental amber perfumes, from Dior‘s Mitzah and Amouage‘s Opus VI, to Puredistance‘s M and Tom Ford‘s Amber Absolute.

Source: Colourbox.com

Source: Colourbox.com

The very particular, very unique aroma of labdanum is the opening, middle, and end of Ambre Sultan on my skin. The perfume opens with a very boozy, resinous blast of labdanum with all its nutty, dirty, toffee’d, slightly honeyed, sticky, vaguely leathered undertones. It is accompanied by a subset of the honey note which usually emanates from labdanum and which, here, is all about the beeswax. The overall impression is that cognac, rum, toffee, something almost verging on nutty chocolate, and the beeswax from a large hives of bees all got together for a boozy orgy, resulting in the lovechild that is Ambre Sultan. I absolutely love it.

Source: indiamart.com

Source: indiamart.com

All too quickly, however, the perfume loses some of its sticky, resinous sweetness, thanks to the subtle infusion of dried, green herbs. They’re led by bay leaf in particular, and the aroma is initially as strong as one of those over-sized, chef jars that contains hundreds of the dried ingredient. There is the faintest touch of oregano that follows in its trail, but it’s brief and quickly flitters away. Far, far below, in the base, there is a subtle, very muted, tarry note that almost verges on the camphoraceous, but which never quite gets to the eucalyptus point on my skin. Like the oregano, it too quickly disappears. Much more prominent, however, is the subtle smokiness in Ambre Sultan that dances all around the edges. It doesn’t feel like true incense but, rather, like the smell of burning leaves in autumn.

Ancient coins. Source: eBay.

Ancient coins. Source: eBay.

Accompanying it in the background is an unusual musty, earthy, dustiness. It’s a strange note because it really evokes the feel of some ancient artifact or parchment that had been left at the bottom of an old spice drawer for seventy years. It’s as much earthy as it is dusty and, when combined with the strong beeswax vein running through Ambre Sultan, it really and truly evokes what Serge Lutens intended: “a scented wax, found in a souk and long forgotten in a wooden box.”

The quiet dryness of all these notes, along with the extremely muted veil of herbs, helps to ensure that Ambre Sultan’s sticky, resinous character never verges into the cloyingly sweet or the unctuous. Yet, I’m truly surprised by how minor, light and hidden that green veil is on my skin. I don’t get a blast of myrtle with its medicinal, eucalyptus aroma; there is no angelica with its common celery nuances; the bay leaf disappeared in about 5 minutes; and the oregano was never more than a momentary flicker.

Source: honey-center.gr

Source: honey-center.gr

Instead, Ambre Sultan quickly devolves into a very simple, completely linear, and, ultimately, if I dare say it, somewhat boring combination of labdanum and beeswax. Yes, there are subtle nuances of smokiness and minor muskiness. Yes, there eventually is some vanilla that is faintly powdered and which arises at the very, very end. But, on my skin, Ambre Sultan is just nutty, slightly toffee’d, vaguely honeyed labdanum with its sidekick, the beeswax. It’s like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They ride side by side for hours on end, with the slightly honeyed beeswax temporarily pulling slightly ahead around the end of the third hour, but it’s mainly just the two of them for most of the journey. No sandalwood, no patchouli, no herbs — nothing.

Source: background-pictures.feedio.net -

Source: background-pictures.feedio.net –

The only change in Ambre Sultan is in degree and sillage. Less than one hour into its development, the perfume softens, becoming milder, warmer, and tamer. At the 90-minute mark, Ambre Sultan starts to become blurry at the edges; it feels more like a vaguely nebulous, gauzy bouquet of labdanum and beeswax. It hovers just barely atop the skin, but the sillage decreases even further. Thirty minutes later, at the two-hour mark, Ambre Sultan turns into a complete skin scent. It is becoming increasingly hard to delineate beyond the two main notes that have now blurred together as one. Eventually, however, around the end of the sixth hour, the vanilla and benzoin start to slowly stir in the base, joining the main players in a very muted, hazy form. It’s a lovely, cozy drydown bouquet of sweet, barely resinous, generally amorphous, nutty amber with vanilla, lightly flecked by beeswax. In Ambre Sultan’s final moments, the perfume is nothing more than a faint trace of vanilla with a subtle nuance of powderiness. All in all, it lasted just 7.5 hours.

I liked Ambre Sultan, but I know my lack of exuberance is showing. So, I think it’s really important to put my reactions into a context here. I love massively resinous, spicy amber perfumes, and I’ve tried a lot of them. I think that, perhaps, I had heard a little too much about Ambre Sultan, and that my expectations were a little too high. I also think that my reaction would be very different had I smelled Ambre Sultan at the start of my journey to cover seemingly every amber or amber oriental perfume around. Had I done so, I would probably have been more blown away. As it is, I fear Ambre Sultan is getting the shaft by being compared to other fragrances I’ve tried that are considerably more intense, be it Tom Ford‘s Amber Absolute, or the stunningly rich, dense, concentrated Profumum line of Ambra Aurea and Fiore d’Ambra. By my personal, admittedly peculiar, and distorted standards of richness, I find Ambre Sultan to be light, airy, and safe. I realise that a lot of people consider it to be one of the richest, spiciest ambers around. But then, they also say that about Parfum d’Empire‘s Ambre Russe, too — and I thought that one was so sheer and anorexic that it might as well be an eau de toilette. So, clearly, I have a very different measuring stick than most.

Yet, despite my admittedly uncommon views on what constitutes richness versus lightness, I’m not completely alone in finding Ambre Sultan to be tamer than anticipated. Olfactoria’s Travels had the same reaction, and her review encapsulates many of my feelings about the perfume:

Usually, light or subtle are not adjectives one would immediately associate with a Lutens creation. And not that Ambre Sultan is either of these traits, but it is way less than what I was expecting in volume.

I thought an amber fragrance from our dear Serge would blast me clean out of my boots, to put it mildly. What I got was a purring kitten, sleeping in my lap, spreading its warmth, not a roaring tiger that is out to have me for dinner.

Ambre Sultan is a gorgeous perfume, an amber to love, an amber to cherish, an amber perfect in its execution, but it does not pack a punch like Annick Goutal Ambre Fetiche, Armani Privé Ambre Orient, Parfums d’Empire Ambre Russe or Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, it is a lot subtler and lower in volume.

I would not make that much of a fuss, were it not a Serge Lutens perfume. You just come to expect certain things and when they are not met, there is a kind of disappointment, that is not necessarily rational or justified. But it is there nonetheless. […][¶]

Things would be different had I come from the other side. Never having smelled an amber scent like the ones mentioned above, would probably have resulted in a different view.

Despite that initial disappointment, Olfactoria (or Birgit) grew to love the scent, finding it “erotic” and “deeply sexy.”

I part ways with her there. I find Ambre Sultan to be cozy and safe, verging a little on the uninteresting, given the way that it manifested itself on my skin. It’s surprisingly boring and linear for a Lutens, too. But perhaps my heart is simply too taken by Profumum’s Ambra Aurea with its gloriously different focus on pure ambergris — in the most enormous, expensive quantities imaginable — resulting in a smoky, sultry, endlessly smooth, insanely concentrated fragrance that I couldn’t get out of my head. (I cannot wait for my 30 ml decant to arrive!)

Still, if you’re new to amber, please don’t let me stop you from trying Ambre Sultan. It’s a great amber fragrance that is surely bound to be very satisfyingly rich for you. As the perfume critic, Tania Sanchez, writes in her four-star review in Perfumes: the A-Z Guide, Ambre Sultan essentially pioneered the way for all the amber fragrances which later ensued. It started the trend when it was originally released in 1993, and has been hotly copied ever since. As she says, “[w]hat distinguishes Ambre Sultan in this now-crowded arena is a high dose of fantastic dried-herb smells, which give it, in the top, a dusty, salty, outdoor air, before the more familiar vanillic-balsam plot takes over.”

My only word of caution — and it is a strong one, indeed — pertains to those distinguishing herbs. My skin amplifies base notes, so I didn’t get a lot of the herbal blast at the top, but you should expect it unless your skin is like mine. Some people really cannot stand the bay leaf, while others struggle with the oregano, or find the overall combination to evoke medicinal images. For example, on one Basenotes thread, some of the negative reviews consist of the following:

  • I was very excited to try this fragrance…. applied some on my wrist and took a sniff!!! oh oh! I don’t like this one that much… this smells like the Chinese medicine that my mom used to give me as a kid when I have an upset stomach… this smells like coriander with some Chinese herbal medicine.
  • I like the ambre basenotes but not the kitchen spices in the opening.
  • Yeah I feel the same way. It smells like awkward mint. Like eating a weird foreign dish full of spices and then chewing gum. Bleh
  • I actually hate this fragrance, it turned me off to amber for a while..the herbal was more than I could stand and after a few hours I actually felt sick. About the most unpleasant experience I’ve had with a fragrance.

Those comments are in the minority, however, as many, many people adore Ambre Sultan. There are extremely positive reviews in that same thread, as there are on Fragrantica where some gush in all-caps about their love for Ambre Sultan, or write:

  • If I can only have one perfume, this will be it. The opening is quite strong but then as it dies down, a warm comforting amber cocoons your surrounding.
  • Normally I have no desire to sit in the smoke direction by a campfire. But this fire has the most amazing smoke. The wood on the fire is pure sandalwood. An amazing hot, smoky, spicy perfume. Makes me quite warm. Check me in as part of the harem of Ambre Sultan’s Palace.
  • If I close my eyes I envision myself in an exotic bazaar, the air filled with heavy incense, spices, and herbs and after thoughts of men’s colognes. Ambre Sultan, fit for a king, worn by a woman.

There are many more in that same vein. As I said, Ambre Sultan is one of the most popular amber fragrances around. But, if herbs are not your cup of tea, then you can always try to hunt down Tom Ford’s now discontinued Amber Absolute or his new Sahara Noir (which I found to be incredibly similar to Amber Absolute on my skin, only with oud.) Or, if you want the glory that is true ambergris (as opposed to labdanum or just regular, plain “amber”), then try Profumum’s Ambra Aurea, and be prepared to have your socks knocked off. No herbs, no spices, no complications — and it leaves all the others in the dust, in my admittedly biased opinion.

Still, if you want a different take on ambers, give Uncle Serge’s pioneering vision a chance. You may enjoy his soft, fragrant, herbal trip to a Moroccan souk.

 

DETAILS:
Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan bell jarGeneral Cost & Sales Prices: Ambre Sultan is an eau de parfum that usually comes in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size, though a larger 2.5 oz/75 ml bell jar version is also available from some limited vendors, and Serge Lutens also has a refill option of 2 x 30 ml sprays. The retail price for the usual, common 1.7 oz size is $120, €82 or £69.00, with the bell jar going for $280 or €125. However, Ambre Sultan is currently on sale as the “Deal of the Week” at FragranceNet where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle is priced at $81.19, with an additional 15% OFF with the coupon code RESFT5 and free domestic shipping. Oddly enough, Fragrancenet sells the same perfume through Sears for $68.75 with $6.25 shipping. Ambre Sultan is also on sale at FragranceX for $96.22, and 99Perfume for $100.99. I don’t know how long these specials will last.
Serge Lutens: you can find Ambre Sultan in both sizes on the U.S. and French Lutens website, with other language options also available. There is also the extra option not seen elsewhere of Travel Refills where 2 x 30 ml sprays of Ambre Sultan are sold for a total of $135 or €90. 
U.S. sellers: Ambre Sultan is available in the 50 ml size for $120 at Luckyscent, Barney’s (which also sells the expensive bell jar version), Aedes, Parfum 1, and Penny Lane.
Outside the U.S.: In Canada, you can find Ambre Sultan at The Perfume Shoppe for what may be CAD$110, but I’m never sure about their currency since it is primarily an American business. They also offer some interesting sample or travel options for Lutens perfumes. In the UK, you can find Ambre Sultan at Harrods or Liberty where it costs £69.00 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle. You can also find it at Les Senteurs (or perhaps just at their Elizabeth Street shop) where that same bottle costs more at £79.00. The site sells samples of Ambre Sultan for £3.50. In France, Premiere Avenue sells it for €79 and I believe they ship world-wide, or at least through the Euro zone. In Italy, you can find Ambre Sultan at Essenza Nobile for €78. In Australia, it is sold out on the Grays website where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle retails for AUD $109.50, but you can find it at CosmeticsNow for AUD$126.95. For other countries, you can use the Store Locator on the Lutens website.
Samples: You can test out Ambre Sultan by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. There is also a Four Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where the vials are larger at 1 ml each, and you get your choice of 4 Lutens Export fragrances (ie, not those that are Paris exclusives).