Thursday, March 3, 2011

Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan: fragrance review

Much has been made of Ambre Sultan's resemblance to women's odorata sexualis, the intimate scent of a woman, and although I fail to take this literally, this Serge Lutens perfume is certainly one of arousal. Lovers of this deep, devilishly suave iconoclast of a scent (which doesn't recall any of the powdery, "safe" sweet ambers you might have known before) confirm it.

And if it seems counterintuitive to think of an amber when spring is around the corner, and indeed when Lutens has just launched his newest Jeux de Peau, Ambre Sultan can surprise us; the perfect amber blend for warmer weather, blooming into something more meaningful with each sun ray that hits our hair.

According to fragrance expert Roja Dove ~journalist Hannah Betts quotes him in Let Us Spray~ this is part of a wider trend: "When the Aids epidemic hit, we wanted all the sex washed away, but perfume is returning to its semier side." Amber fragrances in general have something of Eros in them, because they try to recreate an oriental ambience that spells languor, exoticism, opulence, all conductive to a let go of the senses evocative of odalisque paintings by Eugène Delacroix or orientalia scenes by Rudolph Ernst. The most common raw materials for creating an amber "accord" (accord being the combined effect of several ingredients smelling more than the sum of their parts) are: labdanum (resinous substance from Cistus Ladaniferus or "rock rose", possessing a leathery, deep, pungently bitterish smell), benzoin (a balsam from Styrax Tonkiniensis with a sweetish, caramel and vanillic facet) and styrax (resin of Liquidambar Orientalis tree with a scent reminiscent of glue and cinnamon). And most ambers are usually quite sweet or powdery-hazy (particularly those which include opoponax and vanilla) which bring their own element of both comfort (a necessary part in surrendering inhibitions) and desire. Ambre Sultan has a devil may care attitude and the necessary austerity to break loose with all conventions.

The truth in the creation of Lutens's famous opus is different than the rumours, although none the less semiotically erotic. Serge Lutens was simply inspired by his forays into local Marrakech shops, full of interesting knick-knacks and drawers of pungent spices, where precious vegetal ambers are preserved in mysterious-looking jars alongside Spanish Fly. As the polymath Serge divulges: "An amalgam of resins, flowers and spices, these ambers are a praise to women's skin". This was the brief given to perfumer Chris Sheldrake and together they set on to create one of the most emblematic orientals in modern perfumery in 2000.

Interestingly enough, the pungent, sharply herbal opening of Ambre Sultan, full of bay leaf, oregano and myrtle is traditionally thought of as masculine, but it is the rounding of the amber heart via mysterious, exotic resins, patchouli and creamy woods which captures attention irreversibly and lends the scent easily to women as well. The first 10 minutes on skin are highly aromatic, like herbs and weeds roasting under a hot sun on a rocky terrain, with bay and myrtle surfacing mostly on my skin. The effect translates as spicy, but not quite; what the creators of Diptyque must have been thinking when they envisioned their own original herbal fragrances treaking through mount Athos. Next the creamier elements segue, contrasting warmth and cool, fondling the skin and at the same time hinting at an unbridled sensuality.
Although Ambre Sultan is a scent I only occassionaly indulge in (preferring the leather undercurrent of Boxeuses or the hay embrace of Chergui and the bittersweet melancholy of Douce Amère when the mood strikes for a Lutensian oriental), probably because it's rather masculine on my skin, I marvel at its technical merits each and every time: the way the creaminess never takes on a powdery aspect and how it's poised on a delicate balance between smoky and musky without fully giving in to either.
Much like Lutens is the sultan of artistic niche perfumery, Ambre Sultan is a dangerous fragrance in the pantheon of great orientals that like a possessive sheik will never let you look back...

Lovers of Ambre Sultan might enjoy other dark, non sweet or spicy blends such as Amber Absolute by Christopher Laudemiel for Tom Ford Private Blend, Creed's Ambre Cannelle (whose spice uplifts the skin-like drydown) and I Profumi di Firenze incense-trailing Ambra del Nepal. Those who would love a sweeter amber but still firmly set into the Lutens canon, can try his equally delightful Arabie with its dried figs and pinch of cumin spice.

Notes for Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan:
coriander, oregano, bay leaf, myrtle, angelica root, patchouli, sandalwood, labdanum, benzoin, Tolu balsam, vanilla, myrrh.

Ambre Sultan is part of the export line by Serge Lutens, in oblong bottles of 50ml Eau de Parfum, available at select boutiques and online stores such as the Perfume Shoppe.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Serge Lutens news & reviews

pics via hommebraineur and rudolph valentino blog


  1. I still can't believe I've never tried either Ambre Sultan or Arabie - shame on me. And I love orientals. And most of what I've tried of the SL opus.
    I will try to remedy this soon. :)

  2. dleep17:38

    This was my first Serge and I love it.

  3. Anonymous18:51

    Although Serge Lutens is my favourite perfume creator Ambre Sultan is a fragrance that I cannot stand on me. Not because I do not like it but because it triggers a very strong emotional response of fear, oppression and sadness. Amber tends to do that to me but Ambre Sultan in particular is the only fragrance that triggers such strong feelings. That says quite a lot I believe about Serge Lutens's ability to create conceptual fragrances.

    Arabie on the other hand, is a sweet story. It feels like a velvet robe, soft and soothing, it reminds me of the taste of "melomekarona", the traditional greek Christmas sweets that are actually heavily spiced, honey soaked cookies.

  4. Once upon a time, and for that matter, even today, I used to detest ambers. They were too cloying, too much, too sweet, just plain...too, too. I would stick with my greens and my chypres, thank you very much, and those sultry creations would just have to live without me.

    Then, I encountered Ambre Sultan. It was utterly unlike any other amber I had tried, it was somehow richer, denser, a complex story that that kept unfolding - like some endless Oriental carpet. I couldn't get enough. I had to have it. I bought a decant. I bought a bottle. And now, I can't imagine life without it! It reminds me of everythinhg I love about the entire Serge Lutens line - an ever-intriguing, ever-shifting series of bottled tableaux, that only unfold their many-layered tales on skin.

    Including this one!

  5. Ines,

    you should try them both: very different, but both very Lutensian!

    (let me offer a sample of AS gratis, mail me with an address, we're so close by geographically anyway!)

  6. dleep,

    what an introduction! It's a unique scent.

  7. Dimi,

    I have a similar problem, thanks for sharing your own troubles. Although I find this one a unique take on amber (usually I'm not an amber person because so many are so heavy, so dense, so...opaque, if you will), it takes on a very aromatic, very masculine tinge on my skin. On fabric it's less so, but the harsher elements last for longer. So, this is why I rarely wear it, to my chagrin because I admire it a lot.
    Lutens does have an extraordinary ability to create a vision through his line, a vision that has been authentic and consistent for most of his course.

    It's a bit discouraging to hear that on men's skin AS might react the same way. :-( I haven't dared douse my SO with it, as he's a hardcore chypres-greens-&-vetivers man all the way.

    As to Arabie, indeed!! Great thought! Such a joyful association, would love to have some melomakarona right now, to be honest.

  8. Dimi,

    forgot to say: Have you tried El Attarine as well? Its tie with melomakarona is also not without merit. I think you'd love it (it has the everlasting touch too, which is such a Med reference)

  9. Tarleisio,

    detest is a strong word, but yes, I get what you're saying. They can be opressively opaque sometimes.
    It's good to hear of other people in the know struggling with the same troubles.

    Bottled tableaux is such an apt expression to describe the Lutens line! Thank you for bringing that here :-)

  10. I love amber fragrances and I dream to smell the amber gris.
    I think that amber is very sensual fragrance both on male and on female skin, but for me the great amber of lutens is better on my girlfriend.
    What do you think about Ombre Fauve?

  11. Anonymous04:03

    love this one, but for me it is a huge blast of incense! i actually use it for an incense fix. the amber is great because it doesn't veer into cheap, headshop territory ever! great, great scent.


  12. Over the past year and a half or so, I've been burnt out on amber scents. Ambre Sultan is the one that brought me back. Your thoughts on it are very much in line with mine; it's the aromatic hit at the outset and the distinctly deep resinous (not powdery) qualities that set it apart. One of the finest amber scents ever, I think.

  13. Giovanni,

    I think you can contact the ambergris suppliers in New Zealand (they're Google-able, I don;t have the exact info on hand right now) and ask if they have some lumps for selling, they had come across a big chunk which should last for a very long while. It's worth exploring, I can tell you!
    I also can recommend La Via del Profumo from Italy who has gorgeous natural tinctures and essences for sale on his site.

    It's interesting that you find AS better on feminine skin! Wow, it must be something regulated through some specific Ph issue then, fascinating.

    As to Ombre Fauve I am not that well familiarized with it, but judging by my passing experience with an errant sample, my reaction was a positive one.

  14. C,

    oh great, now you bring incense into it!! As if it wasn't complex enough. There is of course tons of benzoin and myrrh in. It's only that to me and my orthodox proclivities frankincense and its citrusy-smoky trail is the true "incense" in my mind. No doubt not true for thousands of other people, LOL

    Yeah, it's a masterful fragrance; absolutely no doubt about it and I admire it a lot.

  15. Carrie,

    indeed, glad we agree! Ambers can be all oppressive sometimes, which is unfortunate. I have likened this to big hug-loving aunts which you haven't seen in a long time and they just need to headlock you in an embrace every time they see you from their sheer enthusiasm of the reconnaissance. AS is subtler than that, despite its baroque mien. :-)

  16. Mmmmmmmm... It's one of my Top Three, and my favorite amber of all time. I love the dry, resin-y quality of this perfume, and the smoky mysterious feeling of it. I wear it summer and winter, and revel in it.

  17. Anonymous18:50

    Actually it is Christos. Dimi is a friend and I wish by blog was as good as his. There seem to be lots of Greeks perfume-blogging.... Wonder why?

  18. SS,

    it's indeed very resinous and that probably makes it what it is. It's weird how it's exactly right in warm weather: the Moroccan tradition of course does explain this (amber should behave well in heat, since it's steeped in a tradition that revolves around warm climates), but so few ambers do.

    Do you find that its scent behaves differently though between the seasons? I sometimes think it's "blooming" best in heat.

  19. Chris,

    sorry!!! My mind is mush obviously! My mistake! Your venue is nice looking too and hope you update it often.

    I love that I find more and more Greeks blogging on this subject. I think it's because we're sensual people, fun-loving and we're surrounded by such a rich scent landscape in our home country; it bends inhibitions on trying things and creates memories that are rich in fragrant elements. Maybe that? Plus most Greeks know English well enough to communicuate their thoughts fluently! (Yours is perfect)


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