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Bombay Duck London

The 12 Scents of Christmas No. 6: Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan

I once described Ambre Sultan as sex-in-a-bottle in a major Sunday supplement and caused a stampede to the counters.  (Which probably says something about the state of the nation’s amorous life.)  Retrieving it from the back of my dressing table – which can sometimes be a little like one of those amusement arcade penny games, only with bottles falling off the back – I am reminded how very, super-sensual this scent is, and how much I rate it.  So I’ve reinstated it, centre stage, for the party season, where it truly belongs.   The result:  at a champagne-fuelled office soirée the other evening, no less than eight people asked me approvingly what scent I was wearing, as we air-kissed.  (This is the beauty industry, dahlings!)

Ambre Sultan is pure oriental languor and sexiness.  It’s eau de harem.  I’m virtually staring through an intricately-patterned screen at the Bosphorus while waiting for my pasha to summon me from his throne, when I remove the bronzed stopper to splash this on my skin and the powerful miasma of amberiness emerges.  It’s velvet-soft and a little bit smokey – and has always reminded me just a shade of Norma Kamali’s very daring, incense-based signature fragrance, which rocked Studio 54 through the shoulder-padded 80s and is one of my all-time daring favourites and Long Lost Scent Loves.

Serge Lutens’ offering doesn’t pass go to collect its £200:  it goes straight to the base notes.  I’m not even sure if there are any conventional top notes in this.  Plenty of spices – the heat of coriander, the aromatic dryness of a bay leaf or two, a pinch of cumin that make it fleetingly medicinal – but this is heavy, heady on the base.  (You can tell from the colour, actually.  A little clue as to a fragrance’s balance:  the darker the liquid, the deeper the scent.  If it’s all but see-through, expect airiness;  if it’s mid-tone, the chances are the heart notes are the stars of the show – and if it’s heading towards brown, it probably smoulders.  Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew and my second Scent of Christmas, Tabu, being perfect examples.)

The amber does a sort of Dance of the Seven Veils through the whole scent from top to bottom, occasionally revealing some new element to enjoy.  A really resinous touch (almost Christmas-wreath).  Muskiness (as if the amber itself wasn’t enough of a passion trigger…)  Patchouli and sandalwood play hide-and-seek with my nose, too.  And there’s a drip of honey.  A waft of burned caramel.   A touch of labdanum.  Ladlings of sweet, custardy vanilla.  While very va-va-voom, with a serious sillage, it manages to be all smooth-cornered.  It is also (don’t say you weren’t warned) ultra-persistent.  My party clothes (especially the vintage feather boa) are still deeply infused with Ambre Sultan.  Which is fine if you love it, as I do – but Ambre Sultan is divisive, and for every fan there’s a dissenter or two, who’ll talk of ‘burned rubber’ or ‘hospitals’, even ‘Play-Doh’.  (Sign of a great scent, I always feel.   Who wants bland, boring, ‘oh, it’s fine’ scents…?  Not me.)

Serge Lutens himself – and a more enigmatic man I’ve never met, with his impassive, almost kabuki visage – has never shied away from creating scents that are a thing apart.  In fact, I first discovered Ambre Sultan when I went to interview Monsieur Lutens, on low Chinese cushions above Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido.  (A treasure trove of precious perfumes, in Paris, which is a must-visit for every scentophile.)  Actually, when I was sniffing around for a bit more information about this particular perfume (born 1993), I belatedly discovered that its ‘nose’ is Christopher Sheldrake, who’s now working with Jacques Polge at Chanel on new fragrances like Les Exclusifs.  And I’m not surprised, because Mr. Sheldrake is a very talented man indeed, and I think this is a minor work of genius.

So I’ve vowed not to let this nearly drop off the back of my dressing table again – just pleased to have been reminded that this is probably my favourite amber scent ever (and I’ve got a bit of a thing for amber).  Like bumping into a sexy old boyfriend unexpectedly on the street, it’s got me all fired up and flirty.  But by the way, it really belongs in a cleavage – as plunging as possible.  Polonecks and 32Bs need not apply, for Ambre Sultan.

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