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).

Modern Trends in Perfume: Part II – Sweat, Genitalia, Dirty Sex & Decay

Earlier, in Part I, I covered the super-sweet and gourmand categories of perfumes that are currently popular on the market. Perhaps as a backlash to those scents, some designers have sought to go in a polar opposite direction. I’m not quite sure how to characterize the varying scents in this group or groups, so I’ll simply call them the Extreme Eccentrics.

The perfumes range from scents which seek to replicate post-coitus … er… muskiness, to armpit body odor to (allegedly) unwashed female genitalia or semen. Even decay and decomposition. No, I’m not joking. I understand everyone’s body chemistry differs, but not when a perfume is *intentionally* made to smell like that. I also understand the interest in the scent of sex and the impact of pheromones. But when a scent’s after-effects have been compared to “canned tuna and urine,” and when you specifically tell your perfumer/composer that you want the smell of female genitalia (washed or unwashed is unknown), then perhaps you’re taking your brand’s famous eccentricity to really extreme levels. Vivienne Westwood’s famous (infamous?) Boudoir is one of the perfumes in question here. According to some, she specifically wanted the perfume to have a note resembling that of a woman’s private parts. And, it seems the perfumer succeeded. In fact, a large number of people seem to adore the scent – though almost all its fans admit they wouldn’t dare wear it to work and that it needs to be (as the name suggests) restricted to the boudoir. A proper, in-depth description of Boudoir can be found here.

Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom (discontinued after his death) is slightly different. Like Boudoir, descriptions of the perfume seem to imply that it too falls under the “sweatiest of skanky, dirty sex” category. But there is another added element: body odor. Kingdom has cumin in it and cumin has a tendency, in strong doses, to smell like bad B.O.  (Personally, I think cumin smells like revoltingly dirty socks combined with bad armpit sweat. No, I’m not a fan.)

Now, I haven’t smelled either of these two in person (Kingdom is not easy to find nowadays), but I’ve read plenty on both and find the whole concept behind them fascinating. Both scents come from designers known for being cutting-edge, unconventional, eccentric, and avant-garde. Both are clearly representative of their designer’s aesthetic and ethos. But they are also both perfect examples of the rebellion against the more mainstream modern scents with their predominantly sweet characteristics.  They are also not alone. There are numerous perfumes and colognes out there that seek to emulate sex and post-sex muskiness in different degrees. It’s just that few have pushed it to the extremes of Boudoir and Kingdom.

Or have they? A 2008 article in the British paper, The Guardian, points out the intention of some perfumers, going all the way back to Jacques Guerlain in the early 20th century:

Jacques Guerlain – begetter of the scents Jicky, Shalimar and Mitsouko – observed that his perfumes should recall “the underside” of his mistress, while Tom Ford declared that he wanted his Black Orchid to smell “like a man’s crotch”. Such flights of fancy are known as “knicker scents” and conjure the vagina, semen, even the anus. […] Still more notoriously, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan comprises a ripely resinous vegetal amber suggestive of female arousal.

Sperm-wise, we have Alan Cumming’s aptly named Cumming; Thierry Mugler’s Cologne with its carnal “S note”; and Sécrétions Magnifique by Etat Libre d’Orange, its packaging emblazoned with a spurting penis. The truly fixated should embrace Orgie, a graphic aroma created by Christoph Hornetz and Christophe Laudamiel as part of a 15-scent tribute to Süskind’s novel. An evocation of a copulating crowd, it positively spews semen. Those of a rear-ended persuasion, meanwhile, should consult Eau de Hermès, which revels in a certain sweat-spiced, masculine intimacy, while Roja Dove is proud that his “Roja Dove No 3” has a salty sensuality about its nether regions.

You might wonder how perfumers achieve such results. The Guardian article (linked to up above) explains:

Many of perfumery’s most venerable creations owe their sensuality to the use of animal ingredients with a certain “spray” element: civet, a faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat; castoreum, a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver; ambergris, a briny and vomitous by-product of the digestive system of sperm whales; and musk secreted from the sheath gland of the musk deer have all been popular perfume ingredients. Then things become still more complex: civet may be cut with hair or – brace yourself – infant excrement.

So, if you always wondered why that one perfume of yours smelled …. unpalatable…. to put it politely, baby poo and feline anal glands may be to blame. Or perhaps it’s something else, like the smell of rotting decay which the U.S. Department of Defense allegedly researched as a weapon of mass olfactory destruction. Okay, perhaps it didn’t go THAT far, but they certainly tried! It was part of another sub-set of scents in this Extreme Eccentrics group: perfumes that smelled of death and decomposition! From that same, incredibly fascinating article:

An American department of defence collaboration to devise non-toxic olfactory weaponry found the stench of decay to be more intolerable even than that of vomit or burned hair. A forerunner of such tactics, a putridly flatulent stink called Who Me?, was devised during the second world war to be used by the French Resistance (who else?) to humiliate fastidious Nazis. […] But the ultimate paean to decomposition is Laudamiel and Hornetz’s [2007 scent] Human Existence, a robustly repellent reek smacking of oral abscesses and vegetal decay. Apply to your wrist and you will desire only to hack it off.

Laudamiel was specifically influenced by Patrick Suskind’s fabulous, infamous, legendary and brilliant novel Perfume and its anti-hero, the scentless, Grenouille. It is a book I highly, HIGHLY recommend for all perfume addicts. Those who lack the time to read it may be interested to know that Grenouille’s ultimate and final perfume creation leads to an orgiastic explosion of excess and was made from the essence of 25 virgins. Laudamiel expressly sought to recreate the pivotal scenes from Perfume and the murderer’s scents, one by one, starting in 2000. (Without murdering anyone, I should hasten to add!!!) According to an informative N.Y. Times article on Laudamiel, he was assisted in his endeavour by a perfume scientist who “recruited two young female virgins and, with their parents’ permission, recorded their aroma using a polymer needle. Laudamiel found this scent on I.F.F.’s shelves, then added the scents Süskind describes as clinging to the virgin’s skin: apricot, nuts, sea breeze.” (See, “Smellbound.”) There has been no indication as to whether Laudamiel succeeded in his efforts to replicate Grenouille’s infamous and orgy-inducing fragrance….

Thankfully, most perfumers don’t go to such extremes. But niche perfume houses are increasingly pushing the envelope in order (in my opinion) to counter the avalanche of mass-market, generic Sugar Bomb and Gourmand perfumes on the market. There are no limits, no even the smell of human decay!

If all this has left you with the strong urge to take a shower or to cleanse yourself, then you’re in luck. Part III of this article will focus on the Clean/Fresh category of perfumes, along with the latest, popular trend of Aoud/Oud scents. I’ll add that link here when it is up. Stay tuned!