One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Attack of the Cetaceans: Balmain Ambre Gris

I should probably just permanently disqualify myself from writing about anything that contains amber as a major component.

Balmain's recent Ambre Gris does. The very top is sugared immortelle, not unlike L Lempicka, with a slightly fruity-floral feel to it, but lurking just below the surface--BANG, amber. A lot of amber.

The trouble is that I love it. I have no sense of perspective on it at all. If I smell something heavily ambered, I'm probably going to just fall in love with the scent and then I'll lose all objectivity, although, come to think about it, I'm about as subjective as can be when it comes to scents: I love them or hate them and there isn't much middle ground. There isn't any with amber and ambergris, though. I am addicted to the stuff. Therefore, you are going to have to take everything I say with a grain of salt. If you don't like amber scents, or sweet scents, well, just move right along.

The amber, as I have said, starts at the beginning and runs through the entire scent. It's not linear, though: grace notes and unexpected accords slide into view and then vanish, every one of them seemingly devised to act as counterpoint to the sweetness of the amber. A pointy little sprinkling of cinnamon appears about an hour in. Smack in the middle, for a little while, is tuberose: not enough to make it floral, and not enough to make me uncomfortable, but enough to cut through the gathering sweetness, a pinpoint spotlight piercing the fog. A slightly dusty wood and a crumb of myrrh show up late in the game. Finally, though, the amber swamps everything else, as it must: the base is amber and vanillic benzoin and not much else, for hours. It is wonderfully composed and very beautiful.

I am still not sure about that bottle. The flacon itself is a nice solid block of glass, the juice is a lovely grey, but the cap? I can see that it's meant to evoke a thimble, which is an obvious choice for a couture house's fragrance: Madeleine Vionnet's eponymous scent did the same thing. Hers, though, used an actual thimble shape atop a stylized dressmaker's form,

but the cap for Ambre Gris has been abstracted into something that could be

a gilded golf ball,

a jaundiced disco ball, or

Disney's Epcot Center.


My first experience with an amber-dominated fragrance was in 1987 (I actually remember the year), when I bought a miniature of the 1985 scent Anne Klein II. Calvin Klein's Obsession, from the same year, also contained a lot of amber, but Anne Klein II was possessed by it: it was a strange little minimalist bottle (a glass cylinder cut in half down the long axis) full of pure liquid warmth. I had never smelled anything like it. I wore it all the time, down to the last drop.

It was, of course, discontinued, although you can buy a duplicate of the scent, which is supposedly made with the original formula (the company that makes the copy has the right to use the recipe but not the name). Haven't tried it, don't know if it's exactly the same, but I had the experience of smelling it a couple of weeks ago nonetheless.

In my last order from The Perfumed Court I had ordered the Ambergris Sampler, which contained Ambre Gris and six other scents. When I opened the little plastic enveloped to extract a sample, I of course stuck my nose in and took a whiff, and to my astonishment, that muddle of molecules from seven different fragrances smelled exactly like my memory of Anne Klein II. I did it again just now, and there it was again: the precise experience of smelling something I haven't smelled in twenty years.


When I was going on last week about an online fragrance boutique called Parfum1, I had a reason for it. I had been browsing for the best price on a bottle of Ambre Gris, just in case, and Parfum1 has it for $22.50, with a 25% discount (code SPRING25NPE), making it a stunningly bargain-priced $16.25. For a 100-mL bottle. It'll last you forever, it's cheaper than any drugstore brand, and it's really nice. Several people have written in the comments that they've done business with the company and it's reputable, so what are you waiting for?


I entered an online contest at Andy Tauer's blog and won a full bottle of my choice. Since I've only worn three of his scents, I was debating whether to pick something I hadn't tried before, and Herr Tauer said,

Please do me a favor and do not buy unsniffed. I do not want you to be disappointed....

This is good advice. Very good advice. I trusted that I would like anything of his and wouldn't be disappointed, but what if I had been? A waste of a bottle!

As it turns out, I went with the one of his that I loved best, Lonestar Memories. It's glorious stuff, dark, resinous, smoky. If you haven't tried it, you really ought to. Mine arrived in the mail today, and I am going to be wearing this a lot.


  • Another amber fiend! I'm new to it; I sniffed a BBW version years ago that screamed "sexaaaaay" (and not in a good way) and only in the last year tried it again. Now I choose between PdN Ambre Russe, Esteban Sensuelle Russie, MPG Ambre Precieux, Ambra del Nepal, Pacifica Spanish Amber, EL Amber Ylang, the list goes on and on!

    By Anonymous Aparatchick, at 8:23 PM  

  • It seems I bring up Ambre Précieux all the time, and I guess this is another time, because it's my benchmark for what an amber scent ought to be. The stuff is genius. I was utterly floored when I first smelled it; I'd been wearing fragrance seriously since the early 1980s but this was the first time I was possessed by one.

    L'Artisan's Eau D'Ambre and Eau D'Ambre Extreme are also good, and Yves Rocher's Voile D'Ambre is much better than you would have any right to expect.

    And now I suppose I have to go through the rest of the Ambergris Sampler, don't I?

    By Blogger pyramus, at 9:04 PM  

  • Great description and great writing......I've always loved this fragrance was thrilled that your perception of the scent was the same as mine - the drydown is actually "fun" for me and people comment on it every time I wear it. And for me, it seems to work in all types of weather. In fact I liked it so much (and it was so darn inexpensive) that I bought a second if I'm ever going to use that much fragrance in one lifetime!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:53 AM  

  • I have the Yves Rocher, and it is wonderful. My only other amber experience is with Ambre de Cabochard by Gres. I thought it would be good coming from that company. I bought it unsniffed from Marshalls for ten dollars. It smells yeasty, and odd. Not bad, but not exactly good. Turin reviews it in one of his updates and he hates it. Thank you for telling me about the 25% off sale. I bought 3.4 ounces of Tocade(unsniffed), 1.7 of Chocolovers (which is much better than it sounds I swear. I don't know why Pink Sugar is more popular) 3.4 of Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, and a set of Goutal's Songes, Petite Cherie, and Grand Amour each .85 ounces and all unsniffed. All this for a ninety nine dollars. I as so happy I could scream.

    By Anonymous maitreyi1978, at 1:23 AM  

  • I meant I AM so happy. Sorry.

    By Anonymous maitreyi1978, at 1:25 AM  

  • You got a really good deal! And now you've got me tempted, because they have another Goutal set (Hadrien, Nuits D'Hadrien, and Mandragore) for under $40....

    I had never heard of Ambre de Cabochard, or at least I don't remember having heard about it, which isn't surprising, I guess: there are so many new scents each year (that one was launched in 2007) that I don't see how anyone could keep up.

    You're right about Chocolovers: despite the somewhat unfortunate name, it's very good, more malty than chocolate. You should try the body cream if you ever stumble across it.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 6:58 AM  

  • I recently discovered Ambre Gris and it's become one of my favorites - it lasts and lasts and the drydown is SOOOOO interesting. I don't find it too sweet at all! Thanks for the review...

    By Anonymous Chris G, at 12:20 AM  

  • Not sugary-sweet, of course, not cloying. But I find amber scents inherently sweet, and the benzoin in the base just adds to it.

    Have you ever used friar's balsam? It's a tincture of benzoin, used to treat cuts and minor wounds, among other things, and it smells fantastic, a sort of vanilla-milkshake aroma, but very strong, very persistent, and VERY sweet. Also, it stains your skin a little.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 6:47 AM  

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