A Filigreed Drop of Bright

– a review of Amouage The Library Collection – Opus VI

Say that fabled word – amber – and a whole slew of associations come to mind. Those plush, sensuous, ornate magic carpet rides into some equally legend golden sunset of complex, heady perfumes, all the many Occidental dreams contained within the word ‘oriental’, every single one of them adding up to the name of a color, a category, a gemstone and a reverie. Amber in perfume conjures up words like animalic, leathery, sweet, smooth, heady, take-no-prisoners opulent. It can be a Beethoven scented symphony, or an elegant Chopin sonata. We know those notes so well, so well…but love those familiar fragrant phrases no less.

Once upon a time not so long ago, it was one of the two base accords in perfume that made me run for the hills screaming. Amber was far too obvious for my pseudo-intellectual green-chypre tastes, too animalic and possibly too hot to handle, too. There were secrets in those scents I simply wasn’t tall enough or pretty enough or just woman enough to handle, so I stayed well away and well within my comfort zone. I wasn’t an amber woman. Never. Ever.

Yet revolutions happen and perspectives change. My own seismic shift occurred when a small sample of a ground-breaking amber found its way into my hands, onto my skin and under my nose, and in one sniff, that stubborn continent of personal inclination whirled and eddied and changed forever. I started at the very apotheosis of amber, and if I were going to cross that line into amber love, then by golly, it had better be worth it!

Famous last words.

Here I am with still another amber, yet another subterranean seismic shift.

This amber is an Amouage.

Amouage, with all its storied heritage and maximalist approach to perfume, is a house that often slays me in ways both great and small.

No one, but no one, wraps such astonishing frankincense around such story-telling genies, and every Amouage I’ve ever met has always told a story. Even this one, even now, even as I wrestle with these words, Opus VI wants me to shift into narrative mode and tell another fragrant tale of filigree and fable, of moment and futurity, a story of a most unusual, unnerving amber.

Do you think you know something of ambers, do you have certain expectations of what an Amouage amber might be? Are you painting an olfactory image in your mind as you read, of all that word contains and adding the prerequisite five hundred percent?

If you’re anything like me, you are. As you are, that djinn in the bottle jumps up and down with unconcealed glee, anticipating the delicious moment it will subvert every expectation you have.

Opus VI is not your usual amber. If ambers are usually silk-smooth concoctions that wrap around your skin in a velvet touch, then you are in for a surprise.

It begins with a suggestion of the same green and bitter facet fans of Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan might recognize, with a detectable bay leaf burst and a spicy jolt to the nose, and veiled behind it intimations of that well-beloved amber glow on the far distant horizon. But half the thrill of any journey lies not in arriving but enjoying the ride.

As I do, as I wonder where I’ll be taken along the way, a thick, glorious ribbon of incense weaves around me like a cat on stealthy feet and blooms. There is no other way to describe it and no way to precisely describe its effects except to say that if I owned a fainting couch, I’d need it in 3…2…1…

But the journey isn’t over and my own perilous downfall is just beginning. As I’m taken through the shifting scenery that exudes from my skin, the djinn decides to undo me even further.

Nothing like the ambers you know and love, nothing like that well-beloved sweet caress of benzoin or tolu, but a different, woodier, spikier creature that takes all amber clichés and slants them in a different direction and puts them on a darker, moodier path. My nose tells me patchouli and sandalwood, something that reminds me of rich, bittersweet chocolate and something I can’t quite pinpoint but who cares when my axis has shifted and my continents have realigned?

There is nothing I can do and nowhere left to go except to laugh at my own pretentious attempts to nail this perfume to the floor of my words if it slays me. That djinn hides a story it wants me to find, but this is no tale of Sheherazade, no travel back in time, this is very much here and totally now, a thoroughly modern reinvention of what is often such a hackneyed phrase, but Opus VI is no cliché.

It has taken what should be obvious and made it new. It has surprised me and delighted me with that half-hidden veil of amber, glimpsed behind a wooden screen, and filigreed a future full of possibilities upon a huge surprise it took me no time at all to fall so very hard for in all those fatal, fragrant ways.

I have tried and very much liked the opera of volumes I through V. But the number VI did me in, changed my perspectives and possibly even me as well.

Love will do that. Especially when it takes you by surprise, as surely Opus VI did when it filigreed all my future possibilities and wrapped them…in an amber.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Amouage.

Opus VI of the Library Collection was created by Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong in collaboration with Dora Arnaud and Pierre Negrin.

For the review I wish I could have written, may I recommend the incomparable Persolaise.

Amouage Opus VI will soon be available from the Amouage website, Les Senteurs, Luckyscent & First In Fragrance.

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’.

Come To Me Running!

– a review of Neil Morris’ Vault Collection – ‘Rumi’.

Do you have your own perfume Kryptonite – a note that makes you turn green in all the worst ways to the point of feeling physically debilitated? Something you just can’t stand no matter how hard you try and no matter what you do – a note or an accord that won’t work for love, money or threats of asphyxiation?

Until recently, I had two. Two notes, two accords on the bass lines of perfume, but no matter how hard I tried to expand my olfactory vocabulary and horizons, my nose and amygdala just weren’t feeling it.

I hated…amber. That smoky, boozy blend of labdanum, tonka, benzoin, vanilla and other components was complete anathema to my nose. It was just too… animal, too obvious, too…much for this cerebrally inclined chypre fan, so I would just pass them by and leave them to the brunettes of this world to appreciate, thank you very much.

Labdanum in its unadulterated state was another story. Labdanum with all its intimations of goatish animal got my motor running for many suspect reasons, which is why I made it a component of the Devil’s scent.

So it was until I came across an article in the UK Guardian around Christmas last year about that elusive Holy Grail called Sex in a Bottle. One way to grab my attention, so off I went to locate a sample of this fabled ‘fume, and by golly, it was…Sex in a Bottle. It was everything I hated and detested, and it was unlike anything I had ever encountered before and rarely since. It was – indeed, is – one of the most celebrated amber-centric perfumes on Planet Earth. It was Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens. To this day and to this amber-phobic, it is the Khadine of ambers. A decant made its way into my hot little hands before long, and over the course of this winter, I killed it to the very last, über-precious golden droplet.

Maybe I just hated bad ambers? On I went to Olympic Orchids’ Olympic Amber, and learned to appreciate the amber-based drydowns of other perfumes since. Olfactoria may claim to her heart’s content there is no such thing as too many ambers, but I wasn’t entirely convinced of the truth in that statement.

Enter another devious Great Facilitator, JoannElaine of Redolent of Spices and a care package she sent with much love. Nestled among the storied glories of that prosaic cardboard box was a small vial containing an amber fluid and the label ‘Rumi Neil Morris Fragrances.

My curiosity will surely do me in some day. Even though there were other stellar contents in that box, that little vial was the first one I reached for, unpacked, and sniffed. Yum. I sprayed. Next I knew, I swooned, which is the polite way of saying that a large amount of unprintable language ensued and I had to sit down.

Neil Morris is one of the inside secrets of the perfume world so hyper-cool, no one you know has ever heard of him, unless you know a few dozen perfumistas. I read about him and a few of his fragrances on the Perfume Posse first in connection with a New York Sniffapalooza, I believe it was. The extent of my knowledge was…he’s a Boston-based perfumer, he makes really good stuff, he’s a big, burly, adorable teddy bear. He’s made perfumes for the now much-mourned Takashimaya department store in New York, bespoke creations and a collection of about forty perfumes known as the Vault Collection along with his main line of fragrances.

Oh. Yes. The utterly swoon-worthy contents of that little vial that gave me a rate of about 50 cps and revving. (Cows Per Second. For the SLS definition of having a cow, read this.) He made that, too.

Rumi – Neil’s perfume tribute to the famous Sufi mystic, teacher and poet of Konya – is an amber like the Khadine, closely related but sweeter and rosier, not so intimidating to look at but every bit as saucy. It is heady, rich and opulent like all the very best ambers and then again, not all ambers have made me swoon quite so much. I can tell you the notes – see below – and still, I won’t have managed to convey the overall impact of this.

Just as Rumi the teacher, the poet, the mystic was a proponent of transcendence as a path to divine love – this perfume is nothing more nor less than…a transcendent amber. It starts with a punch in the senses of deep rose and plush ylang ylang, but that glow in the dark, velvety aspect of benzoin, patchouli and amber is never far behind and there it stays and it pulses like the living, beating aura of some otherworldly, sacred creature. It stays, finally glowing down to embers of spice, patchouli, myrrh and frankincense, says my nose, and I never, ever want it to leave.

You may come to ‘Rumi’ as simply a spectacular amber. Meanwhile, I sit here in my perfumed cloud and for the first time all day, I feel centered, peaceful, I feel as if I’ve surpassed and suspended my own petty limitations, silly wants and desires to somewhere…elsewhere, a space where only the moment exists and this moment is enough and more than enough, a space I never knew until this deep, deep breath of heart and soul, faith and laughter combined. In one word, it would be…joy. The joy of the moment, the joy of the soul, the joy that comes from feeling yourself connect from the grass beneath your feet all the way to the stars whirling their own celestial devotion above your head – you are all of you all of it and all of it is…one.

If anyone could understand such a feeling, it would certainly be Rumi, if any perfume could evoke it, it would be the one named for him.

Come to me running, Rumi, and let us whirl with our joy out beyond the stars!

Neil Morris, you blew me to dandelion fluff! Thank you for that! Now I can only wonder what other wonders have you made?
For JoannElaine, thank you is far too small a word for the epiphany that you sent, devious facilitator that you are!

‘Rumi’ is in Neil Morris’ Vault Collection of perfumes, available from Neil Morris Fragrances.

Notes: Ylang ylang, rose, benzoin, patchouli, amber

Illustration: the Paris-based artist Hassan Massoudy’s calligraphy portrait of Rumi.