The Incomparable Khadine

– 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.

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’.

13 thoughts on “The Incomparable Khadine

  1. I love the ambers, so there is no resistance for me, bring them on.

    I can see you very well though in the vintage perfumes, the strong ones, blond or no, you have the spirit and personality to carry them, and they often have a burning amberish drydown. Personally I do not see incompatibility between an amber aesthetic and blondness – though the mother thing would indeed give pause, I do understand.

    Love that visual. Truly exactly right for your post.

    I wonder if there is any of that seductive spirit left in the former areas of the Ottoman Empire. I wonder if it was a actually mostly a construct of people like our beloved 19th Century crazy French painters and how the reality was, from the perspective of the women — I guess we'll never know, I get the strong impression they did not approve of literacy for women.

    There's this interesting book, The East, the West, and Sex, I started, you might like to give it a look.

    The artists who visited the East saw a place that seemed to have no rules about sex, as compared to the Catholic and Puritanical West, so it was, and still is, seen as the seat of uninhibited sensuality (for men). And the perfume types like amber associated with the East somehow are still triggers for many of us.

  2. Two days ago I wore Ambre Sultan, and had to restrain myself from licking my arm all day. Oh, and it made me think of you 😉

    I love Ambers. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I haven't met one I don't like, even if I don't need a bottle of every one I meet. AS is one that I very much want a bottle of— even if, instead of taking me to sex in a bottle, it takes me to a volcano of words pent up in a tiny blonde package… 😉

  3. I must revisit this, obviously! And I'm looking forward to your sex in a bottle post (on WordPress! yay!).

  4. Lucy…Yes, I have an affiinity for some vintage perfumes, including some rather spectacular classic chypres such as Cabochard.

    But that mother thing does give pause, doesn't it? If Mother dearest wore it, it usually means I won't. But on the other hand…

    Way, way back in the early days of Christianity, one way to make a definite distinction between Pagan sensibilities and Christian teachings was to borrow the Jewish concept of original sin and deny women the right – or even the need – for sexual pleasure. Hence…the morality that followed.

    In Islam, that never happened and in fact, I read somewhere that certain schools of Islamic teachings are so acutely aware of women's potent and/or unbrdled sexuality they use it as justification for the modesty clause, the hijab etc…Mind you it was never defined as evil – as later Christian dogma determined, starting with St. Augustine .

    But what the Victorians saw as a kind of inherent licentiousness, Ottoman society saw as a given. That opulent Orientalism so romanticized by the Victorians – Sir RIchard Burton, here's looking at you! – was a construct, probably to highlight not a few failings within societal dogma in the West, but nevertheless…artificial!

    Ah, but those heady, rich ambers and all they imply…color me a convert! I started at the top with one of the best of all…

  5. Dee…bless your heart! If wearing AS made you think of me, then…just wow, is all I'm saying!

    A volcano of words…well, some things inspire me more than others, but this lava is usually set to a simmer most days…:) That's just how I am…

  6. I am so happy you have reviewed this, one of my favourites. Love the 'Sex in a Bottle' and look forward to hearing what the other two are. Ah! the blondness I read that word and think of Soko (even if said blonde is a bitch you know.. ;), love that girl.

  7. Gorgeous words inspired by a gorgeous perfume.

    I love Ambre Sultan especially for its herbal quality. I love perfumes with medicinal notes. Ambre Sultan isn't medicinal as in cold and antiseptic; it's good for your soul herbal medicine!

  8. Gorgeously written, as per usual. I am actually quite the amber fan, so this really intrigues me. I tried my first Lutens yesterday, a sample of bois oriental and I fell in love. This seems to be the beginning of a dangerous affair 🙂

  9. I too felt exactly the same about Ambre Sultan, believing it the pinnacle of ambers. And I do still love it. …
    HOWEVER, I'm afraid it finally became just a touch too “herbal” for me, which only heightened when I became aware of it. And also, most importantly, because I became aware of the excellence that is Histoire De Parfums AMBRE 114.
    I'm afraid after experiencing the utter beauty of this geranium rich Ambre 114, it now holds top place as my ultimate amber.
    (I just much prefer the “geranium” facet to the “herbals”, and also appreciate that it is much easier to wear. Yet it's just as intoxicating, if not even more so.)
    If you like (or don't mind) geranium, and have not yet experienced this beauty, I highly recommend it. As for someone who was previously weary of ambers, I think you might just land up agreeing with me.

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