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– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Ambre Sultan’

When you become a true, obsessive perfumoholic, you read…a lot about perfume. Perfume blogs, perfume discussions, Basenotes, Fragrantica, The Perfume Magazine, and whatever articles that might pop into my newsfeed about…perfume.

An article in the UK newspaper The Guardian last December really piqued my interest. It was, among other things, a breakdown of perfumes suitable for the holiday season, and one in particular caught my interest by claiming this perfume was nothing less than that elusive Holy Grail…Sex in a Bottle.

Right. And I’m Queen Marie of Roumania.

Amber perfumes – remember, this was less than a year ago – in particular made me run for the hills screaming. No thank you. I’m too blonde, they’re too obvious and animalic, and besides, my mother wore and loved Shalimar. You know how that goes – anything chère Maman wore is forever out of the question.

But a few days reflection made me reconsider. It was a Lutens/Sheldrake creation, and those two have done more to shift my perspectives than any other perfume duo in terms of redefining perfume artistry. I will always, but always give them the benefit of a doubt. They have surprised me, delighted me, transported me, appalled me, challenged me and seismically shifted my olfactory universe forever. Chère Maman has been gone these thirteen years, so maybe it was time to…grow up? Maman did not wear Serge Lutens. (Trust me, she would have!)

Not to mention, as a woman ‘d’un certain age’ myself, surely I needed all the help I could get? Out came my little book of perfumes, the one it had taken me two weeks to gather up the nerve to ask for. There it was…

Ambre Sultan. In wax, it was…very, very good. I tracked down a small decant, and I do mean…small. There be dragons in that uncharted territory, and who knew what to expect? A man-eating monster? A chimaera? Medusa on the skin? Remember, this was a Lutens. Or was it really…the odorata sexualis of a woman, that particular fragrance Al Pacino refers to in ‘Scent of a Woman’ that transcends perfume, culture, ego, objections and neocortex in one fell swoop and makes a man think…

“This one. Oh, yes.”

I took a deep, deep breath when my decant arrived. I sprayed carefully. Whereupon Wolverine’s father immediately expressed his extreme displeasure, to put it diplomatically, and opened all the windows – in January.

Pity the man. He hates Fracas, too.

Anything my soon-to-be former husband hated on first sniff had to have something to recommend it!

I sniffed. Earthy, herbal, even borderline green at the opening. I was hugely surprised. I then proceeded to spend the better part of an evening with my nose glued to my wrist in a gesture dedicated perfumoholics know all too well.

Ambre Sultan that first, fatal night was a revelation. From that green, herbal blast all the way to the sweet splendor of its peerless golden drydown, it was astounding and surprising. It was one of the most beautiful things I had sniffed in my life. Even so – it is…an amber. Perfume Kryptonite for this Wonder Woman.

No amber could be that good. I had to wear it properly – the total full-body spray – or I couldn’t form an opinion.

That was a night I slept on the sofa. But the day that preceded it was the day I fell helplessly in love – forever.

The wonders of some other fabled ambers I have yet to try. I haven’t experienced Maitre Parfumeurs et Gantier’s Ambre Precieux, Goutal’s Ambre Fetiche, or Parfums d’Empire’s Ambre Russe. I’m sure they’re spectacular. Some day, I would like to try them, and I probably will.

But for this former amber hater, the platinum standard of amber perfumes, the Incomparable Khadine of ambers will always, but always be…Ambre Sultan.

The Incomparable Khadine…a Turkish word that translates as ‘lady’, was also used in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire to denote the Sultan’s favorite concubine, no small distinction when the harem of Topkapi contained over three hundred women, all intent on capturing the Sultan’s attention.

The incomparable Khadine that is Ambre Sultan is not, to the best of my knowledge, an olfactory recreation of the scent of a woman. It wears unisex – I can see this on a man equally well. Heaven forfend I ever meet any short Italianate Big Cheese wearing this, though. I can’t be held accountable for the consequences. They might be lethal.

If you’re looking for a magic carpet ride in a bottle that will take you away from all you think you know of ambers and much you might assume of perfume, look no further. The Khadine is nothing if not surprising, like all the most fascinating women – and perfumes, too.

It opens with a big, borderline bitter blast of green, dry herbs…oregano, which is quite detectable, bay leaf, coriander, myrtle and angelica. At this stage, it seems intimidating, even medicinal. Behind it, the merest hint of amber, veiled just enough to suggest other, sweeter marvels, but a Lutens perfume never gives it all away at the outset. It will take your time as it pleases and reveal itself as it wants, and all you can do is marvel at the view from your magic carpet. Don’t be deterred by the oregano, or even the bay leaf. Pizza will be the last thing on your mind. The coriander and myrtle restrain them, while the angelica with its licorice facet nudges at the wonders to come.

As the Khadine dances across your skin as smoothly as silk, after a good long while, the veil is lifted, an inch at a time, the herbs of the opening fade softly like stars in a morning sky, and the dazzling heart shines through – amber in all its golden magnificence, a sophisticated, grown-up, outrageously opulent amber. Like the gem that also gives this genre its name, different shades that here are different facets of the notes come forth to allure and recede to tantalize you further…dark patchouli, labdanum, styrax…and as even they bloom, the floorshow isn’t over yet.

Many hours later, when you’ve resigned yourself to thinking this is as good as any amber can get, the far drydown – a sweet, smoky mélange of tolu balsam, benzoin, sandalwood, musk and vanilla – lets the final veil drop, and the Khadine stands still before you – as delicious as a first, heated kiss, as deeply satisfying as the twenty-fifth that follows.

Is it that elusive beast – Sex in a Bottle?

Purely in the interests of scientific research you understand, I wore this to work last week. Now as you know, I’m no shy, blushing violet. I am also…‘d’un certain age’. And single. A fatal combination. I did nothing else to add to my own dubious allure except wear my everyday makeup – and Ambre Sultan. Enough to… make a statement. I walked home that day with four invitations – one for coffee, one for a movie, and two for dinner. Not so bad for a humdrum Wednesday.

They’re so sweet when they’re young!

If I were to write my own personal list of perfumes that qualify as ‘Sex in a Bottle’ – in fact, that’s a future blog post I have planned – Ambre Sultan would make it into my current top three. That does not explain why I love it with such a fury, why I’m so passionate about the perfumes of Serge Lutens in general or why I hope never to be without it for the rest of my unnatural lifespan.

Many of my Lutens favorites are infinitely much more than simply ‘sexy’. They challenge me, they tell me continually evolving stories, they change and shapeshift in a way few other perfumes do. Ambre Sultan is no exception to that rule. There is nothing like it in the golden world of ambers. It is flawless art and it is an immortal perfume and it is, to my decidedly biased mind, one of the greatest perfumes created in the past twenty years.

There are many amber perfumes around. Some are very good, some might well be spectacular, but there is only one…incomparable Khadine.

Ambre Sultan.

Notes:
Oregano, bay leaf, coriander, myrtle, angelica, patchouli leaves, amber, cistus labdanum, styrax, Tolu balsam, benzoin, sandalwood, vanilla, musk.

Ambre Sultan is available in the export line of Serge Lutens fragrances in many locations, as well as from the Serge Lutens website.

Image: Detail of ‘L’Apparition’, (1876) watercolor by Gustave Moreau.

Thanks to the fabulous Sevim Türkyilmaz for clarifying the concept of ‘Khadine’.

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