One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Moto Perpetuo: Hermes Ambre Narguilè

"Basso continuo" is the musical term for the harmonic structure, repeated for (more or less) the entire length of a piece, over which the melody floats; it's the structure upon which rests the entire piece. If you've ever heard "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by J.S. Bach, then you've heard a basso continuo. Perfumery is often compared to music, and in the case of Ambre Narguilè, one element acts exactly like a basso continuo: it plays throughout the length of the scent and provides a foundation for everything else you're smelling.

The key to Ambre Narguilè is found in its name. A narguilè is otherwise known as a hookah, and Ambre Narguilè is all about tobacco: the entire scent is laid upon on a carpet of tobacco leaves, a smell familiar to anyone who's ever had a pipe-smoker in the family. The tobacco is astonishingly durable: it's there from the moment you put the scent on until it eventually whispers away twelve or fourteen hours later. The scent just keeps on going, with a slow parade of changes being worked over the basso continuo of unlit tobacco.

The top and middle of the scent suggest a Middle Eastern dessert, the kind of thing you might eat while seating around that hookah with some convivial friends: dates and honey and cinnamon, bathed in vanillic tonka bean and benzoin. Despite this, it's not especially sweet, a gourmand sort of scent that avoids the sugary cliché that makes so many gourmands cloying: the cinnamon provides a little sharpness and a kick.

Regardless of the name, the scent is not particularly amberous. The drydown is warm and inviting, more of those balsams (with dark labdanum added to the mix) dripped over the omnipresent tobacco.

Perfume fanatics online have a couple of jazzy little initialisms, HG and FBW, which stand for, respectively, Holy Grail and Full-Bottle Worthy. A Holy Grail scent means you're looking for the perfect whatever: I love carnations and have several carnation-heavy scents, but the fact is that I'm still looking for my carnation Holy Grail (and may never find it, which is probably the point). I didn't know I had a gap in my collection that could only be filled by a tobacco scent, but Ambre Narguilè is it; it's a true Holy Grail that presented itself to me before I knew I was looking for it. I've been wearing it for a solid week now and I feel as if I could never tire of it. That's probably nonsense: I'm extremely promiscuous and fickle when it comes to scents. But this one is a classic; it's the most perfect thing of its kind.

I have been complaining about the costs of things quite a bit over the last couple of weeks, I see, but this time the cost is entirely justified. There is simply nothing on the market like Ambre Narguilè, and at $190 U.S. for a 100-mL bottle, it is absolutely worth it: the very definition of Full-Bottle Worthy. (You can, as you can see from the picture above, also buy leather sleeves for the full-sized bottles: those are crazily expensive, as befits the Hermes name, and I can't see how it's worth the extra money just to have a square foot of leather wrapped around the thing. I love a clever or beautiful bottle, but I have my limits.)

Ambre Narguilè is part of a line called Hermessences, which is currently up to eight fragrances*: the line started with four, and you could buy a Discovery Set of four 15-mL bottles (one of each, or all four the same) for around $125. I don't know if it's still available or exactly what the price is, because the website is mum: you can only buy Hermessences at the boutiques. Luckily, I'm going to New York in a couple of months, and one of my pit stops is going to be the Hermes store on Madison Avenue. I'll keep you posted, but let's just say that the odds of my coming home with at least some quantity of Ambre Narguilè are very, very high.

*The original four were Poivre Samarcande, Rose Ikebana, Vetiver Tonka, and Ambre Narguilè, launched in 2004. Hermes has been launching about one a year since then, with Osmanthe Yunnan in 2005, Paprika Brasil in 2006, Brin de Reglisse in 2007, and the brand-new Vanille Galante. Maybe there are two Discovery Sets containing between them all eight scents? I can hope. And buy.


  • Do NOT buy paprika brasil, it is vile. Anyway, it was a lovely review. Enjoy your trip!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:14 PM  

  • Well, it certainly sounds vile, since it's apparently based on iris, which I find revolting in any quantity.

    If the first Discovery Set is still available, I'll buy it. If there are two Discovery Sets, one with the first four and one with the second, I'll buy them both. And if I hate Paprika Brasil or any of the other scents, well, no worry: I know I can always swap them away. There has to be someone out there who likes it.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 10:18 PM  

  • I didn't notice any tobacco at all in my Ambre Narguile, but mostly mimosa/almond/baby powder, though I, too am fascinated with its changes throughout the day. I think your sense of smell differs very much from mine, but that's one of the reasons I read your blog.

    I bought a big bottle of A.N. at the Hermes in Honolulu. A big splurge for me, but it was my honeymoon. You may read about it here if you wish. You will probably not like the snarky tone of my blog, but that is sort of the fun of writing it.

    By Blogger cally, at 11:53 PM  

  • There certainly is a bit of cherry and/or almond in the scent, like that cherry-scented pipe tobacco, and a bit of powder, too. I don't notice anything particularly floral about the scent, so no mimosa for me. But no tobacco for you? Really? My father smoked a pipe and so I know the smell of pipe tobacco well, and what I get from Ambre Narguilè is tobacco, front to back and top to bottom.

    Still, everyone's nose is different, yes?

    I am so buying a bottle of this in New York.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 11:47 PM  

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