Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Serge Lutens - Ambre Sultan

How a perfume changed my life

In 2008, I became a perfumista. I had worn perfume since I was a girl, but I wore it in the way my mother did, one bottle at a time; usually the same scent for five years or more. In the fall of 2008, I started to grow restless again with my signature scent and began to look for a new one. While doing some research, I discovered perfume blogs and niche fragrances. The name Serge Lutens was used often, and reverentially on these blogs, so I sought out the line, which at the time was carried by The Bay. Just one small spritz of Ambre Sultan changed everything.

I remember thinking "Oh, this is so spicy, and too masculine for me" but all the way home I kept sneaking whiffs of my wrist. Ambre Sultan was so interesting; it was layered and complicated. It smelled like a mysterious and exotic landscape. It was sweet but had something herbal or medicinal in it too. And later, I thought "Whoa, this stuff smells like pure sex." It was addictive.

Ambre Sultan opened a whole new world of scent for me. For the first time I started to appreciate perfume, not just as something pretty to attract the opposite sex, but as a personal pleasure. And I was free of the idea that I had to choose one "signature" fragrance - I could have more, one for every mood, as many as I wanted. Perfume was more than an accessory; it was an accessible art form. It inspired and entertained me. It created visions in my mind of places, people, moods and emotions.

Through perfume, I rediscovered my love of art history. Like paintings, perfumes could be abstract or realistic representations. There were styles, modern and classic schools, new stars and old masters, commercial mass products and exclusive hard to find items. Unlike painting, the price range for most of these fragrant art pieces was exactly what I could afford.  Although I know it's a stretch to call perfume practical, something in my basic nature liked that the art I was buying was usable. I would rather buy something that will walk around with me all day, than something that will hang on a wall.

It was all over for me from there. Soon, I bought a full bottle of Ambre Sultan, then more bottles, from Frederic Malle, Ormonde Jayne, L'Artisan Parfumeur, Eau d'Italie and more. I went through phases, first addicted to heavy ambers and spices, then woods, incenses, then later discovering I could love flowers too, like roses, gardenias, jasmine, and orange blossoms. Chypres rocked my world. I disdained vintage, I loved vintage. I continue to change and grow in my perfume choices, and I hope I always do.

Enough about you, what does it smell like?

To those of you who scanned everything above to get to this part, Hello! (I do that too.)

Ambre Sultan is linear but multi-layered. It has a sweet, heavy, amber base, like thick, dark vanilla-scented syrup. Floating over this resiny amber is an aromatic smoke of warm spice. There's a medicinal note, which comes from the angelica root, also used in herbal cough remedies like Ricola pastilles. A warm woodiness lies underneath, and a personal smell, like a lover, that may be the myrhh*.

Ambre Sultan is a must try for all perfume lovers. And if you do try it, let me know if it blew your mind.

House: Serge Lutens
Nose: Christopher Sheldrake
Notes: coriander, sandalwood, bay leaf, patchouli, angelica, resins and myrrh

Photo: Amber Fort, Jaipur, Wikimedia

* A recent post by Katie Puckrik called myrrh "scalpy." Maybe that contributes to the afterglow, cuddling in bed, feeling I get from Ambre Sultan. What do you think?


  1. I had the same initial reaction as you - too spicy, too masculine, a bit herbal, a bit medicinal - and have not yet moved on from this stance. But it is a while since I have tried it. And given my extreme flipfloppy nature and your reference to the "pure sex" part, it is maybe about time for a retrial...!

  2. I love what you said about fragrance as art (see, didn't skip;)). I feel that way too, art that is affordable and useable, sadly also ephemeral, once it is gone it is gone, in some cases forever, when you consider all the lost pre-reformulation perfumes.
    Ambre Sultan was thankfully not my first niche perfume, I would have run, run far ;) But I have come a ways since then, and maybe I am ready for it now. Your review is lovely, I will retry AS (and Arabie, while I am at it). Although the word scalpy made me uncomfortable when I read it on Katie's blog and it makes me uncomfortable here...

  3. I have trouble with amber as a note, which is tough because literally every other perfume has amber in some form. It doesn't stop me from persevering and trying new ones when I think they may be the one to not bug my nose. I happen to love SL, but I think I will skip this one. Too risky, I will stick with my adventures in really offensive stuff like Boadicea the Vic Complex with its motor oil, gasoline and civet (which is actually a mesmerizing blend). Easy for me to digest compared to amber. It didn't used to be that way, one day I literally woke up and decided I couldn't stand amber anymore. The same with rose. Wish it wasn't the case!

  4. I have a sample tucked away that I haven't worn yet, as I'm waiting to do a sort of "Serge Lutens" month later this year. I may have to move it up on my calendar, after reading this.

    Your personal story resonated with me deeply-- the life-changer for me, the one that tipped the balance and turned me from mere wearer to full-on maven, was also a Serge Lutens... Arabie. SL has that power!

  5. Hi Vanessa: If you try it again, please let me know what you think.

    Hey Olfactoriastravels: you let me know what you think too. And you're right, "scalpy" is an uncomfortable word. I like to think of it as the smell of the top of a clean head, not dirty hair smell.

    Howdy Carrie Meredith: that's too bad about the amber, but there are so many other SL perfumes to love.

  6. OMG...yes! I can totally relate to that great head&nose-exploding moment where you find something so alien, so unusual and foreign to your normal comfort zone that you just know your world will never be the same again! And just as it was for you - the Serge Lutens line changed my world forever. Now, I'm thoroughly corrupted, and it's all a slippery downhill slide...

    I used to hate. detest and loathe amber with a fury, Blech. And then, I met Ambre Sultan, which is to ambers as kumquats to oranges. It is an amber, there is a kinship there, and then again, it's so much more than that. Like many of the Lutens line, it's more than a little...unnerving and unsettling, shapeshifting from amber to spice to that melancholy myrrh and back again, like a very moody...lover, maybe?

    It's slightly intimidating and very much more than slightly sexy. And like the best lovers - more than slightly addictive! ;-)

    I love Ambre Sultan with a passion and a fury. Sometimes, it's mutual and sometimes, it wears me..

    But sure enough - my life was never quite the same again - and so, I gather, neither was yours! Thank you for your beautiful review - and for reminding me. It's been a while!

  7. hi Olenska: I look forward to reading your SL reviews. And I've never tried Arabie, but I will for sure now.

  8. Hi Tarleisio: it's always nice to meet a kindred spirit. I will have to look at your blog for SL reviews.

  9. A friend asked me a week ago what perfume made me the perfume freak that I am today. I thought about it. I said well, I had an aunt that wore Annick Goutal when Annick Goutal was "niche", does that count? I've always adored perfume and had many bottles by the time I was 10. That wasn't the answer my friend wanted. He wanted what was my "niche", what brought me over to the luxury instead of liking things that "smell good". My answer: Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan. I sniffed it in 2000 or 2001. This fragrance has made me the "perfume freak" (in my friend's words) that I am today.
    I go through note phases, my first "perfume freak" phase: amber. I still have too many amber perfumes! But, I love Ambre Sultan because it is a sweaty, masculine amber, not sweet. At first sniff back in 2000, I was in high school and knew nothing about "pure sex", but as a perfume freak grows older, I know exactly what you mean ;)

  10. I absolutely love Ambre Sultan and wore it today, in fact! Had an early meeting and should have been more judicious (broke my own rule on that), but even so, I think it was perfect.

    One of those 'love at first sniff' perfumes. Great review!

  11. I sstill can't believe I haven't tried this one although it's on my list. It sounds exactly like something I might love with the masculine part.

  12. EauMG: I love that Ambre Sultan was your first "perfume freak" epiphany too! "Sweaty masculine amber" is a great description.

    Josephine: More coincidence! Ambre Sultan is a great warming "sweater" of a perfume for this time of year, isn't it?

    Ines: There are so many SL's to try , but you should put this one on your list.

  13. That was almost a mirror of my journey to learn perfume isn't just a favourite you dab on and ignore others. I havn't tried that Lutens but now I want to and I know a friend who has it , he can expect a visit !

  14. Hey, if you like, I'll tuck a wee sample of Arabie in with your DiBorghese:)

  15. I think I would love Ambre Sultan, especially when you describe it as having a medicinal/personal quality.

    I am a big fan of "scalpy" as you already know. I'm not yet convinced it is myrrh but whatever it is, I love it.

    I was going to sample this in December after I read on a blog (not naming names) that Ambre Sultan is so sexy that those who wear a 32B bra size need not apply. I got in such a flap over that snarky remark that I thought "screw them! I'm going to douse myself in it".

    My anger over that remark consumed me. I eventually had to tell myself to forget about it, so I didn't get around to sampling.

    Just talking about that remark makes me feel like I'm turning into the Incredible Hulk! HULK SMASH!

  16. Olenska: Sure, if you have some to spare, thanks!

    JoanElaine: Remind me not to make you mad. I'm rather, um, Kate Hudson in the chest department myself, and Ambre Sultan wears just fine, so go ahead and spray away.

  17. kjanicki: I'm all bark...no bite!

  18. But, JoanElaine, you should still douse yourself in it! It's that good! I don't know what blog was so offensive, but I know both men and women that rock this! (It has nothing to do with boobies or moobies!)

  19. You inspired me to send away for a sample of Ambre Sultan. And smelling it inspired me to start writing. Thank you, Vanessa :)

  20. By "scalpy," I think the writer was implying that the scent was "heady..."


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