Another month, another convening of Perfume Lovers London at the New Cavendish Club. But this was a particularly special meeting because the talk was being given by our very own Olfactoria, who had made the journey over from Vienna specially for the event.
The organiser of the group, Lila, introduced Birgit (Olfactoria) by saying that it was hard to believe that Olfactoria‘s Travels has only been in existence for 18 months. Recently recommended by former fragrance critic for the New York Times and curator of the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Art and Design in NY, Chandler Burr, it has certainly cuome a long way in a relatively short period of time.
Birgit told us that she is a psychotherapist by profession and a mother of two living in Vienna. She said she had prepared for the talk by watching the entire two seasons of Downton Abbey on DVD. She’d need not have bothered however, because her English is impeccable.
Next we dove into perfume and learned that the fragrance which set her off on her olfactory travels was in fact not an amber at all…
The Perfume That Started It All
En Passant by Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle
This was Birgit’s very first niche scent. What impressed her was the way it smelled so natural and it is indeed an extremely fresh and realistic lilac scent. Googling it led her to the secret world of perfume blogs and there was no turning back from then on. En Passant was also the very first perfume reviewed on this blog.
Birgit explained a little background to the amber perfume genre.
Amber is not occuring naturally but is created in perfumery through a combination of labdanum, benzoin and vanilla. We tried the three raw materials on scent strips and Lila had gone to the trouble of sourcing a Cistus ladanifer plant or “Rock Rose” from which labdanum resin is obtained. The shrub itself didn’t actually have much of a scent but you could feel the sticky resin on it’s twigs.
Amber is often present in perfumes in the form of ready-made bases, like De Laire’s Ambre 83, which is present in a lot of perfumes from Carons to Guerlains.
A modern form of amber is the molecule Ambroxan, for example, that is very light and transparent. (For example Juliette Has A Gun Not A Perfume and Escentric Molecule 02 are made entirely of Ambroxan).
Ambergris is a naturally occurring material that is often wrongly associated with amber scents. Expelled from sperm whales, it has a salty, animalic quality, it is very rare and expensive and it is the only animal substance still in use in perfumery today. Also Ambrette seed is something else entirely and not related to amber, it is harvested from the plant Hibiscus Abelmoschus and has a soft, musky scent.
The following were the amber “guided smells” which were passed around on paper strips for us to try.
1. Starter Ambers
L’Eau d’Ambre by L’Artisan Parfumeur
A basic, straightforward amber by Jean Claude Ellena from 1978, which askews his usual minimalist scent style. This and the other ambers in the category are good options for those who are not too sure of – or accustomed to – the amber perfume genre.
Other Starter Ambers are L’Eau Ambree by Prada, Etro’s Ambre, Agent Provocateur’s Strip and Dior’s Ambre Nuit.
2. Heavy Hitters
Ambre Fetiche by Annick Goutal
One of my personal favourites because of a fantastically limey frankincense note. This bold fragrance diverges from Annick Goutal’s usual style and is part of Les Orientalistes collection along with Musc Nomade, Myrrhe Ardente and Encens Flamboyant.
Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens
A show of hands revealed that this was extremely popular with the assembled perfumistas. Indeed, it has been described as “the gold standard” amber perfume. Birgit told us that she has somewhat of an ambivalent relationship with Uncle Serge’s perfumes, having purchased them only to sell them on eBay and on occasion, subsequently re-purchase. Ambre Sultan has however proven to be a firm favourite thanks to it’s complexity and sensuality.
Another Heavy Hitter is the wonderfully boozy Ambre Russe by Parfums d’Empire
3. American Male Superheroes
Amber Absolute by Tom Ford
A great category idea; macho ambers done in a forthright American style. The pleasant surprise of the evening for me was Tom Ford’s terrifically smoky amber which Birgit advised us is best tested on skin. A couple of willing volunteers sprayed some on their arm for others to try as “human scent strips”. Rumour has it that it is to be discontinued, so let’s hope that’s not the case.
Ambre Orient by Armani Privé
Not as intense as Amber Absolute, Birgit describes this as “smooth and warm and radiant“. It includes notes of bergamot, thyme, incense, geranium, patchouli, oud, sandalwood and vanilla.
Another amber in this category is Ambre 114 by Histoires de Parfums.
4. Powdery Ambers
Ambre by Mona di Orio
Ambre is a very soft and tender amber option. Birgit told us she wasn’t very sure about this one at first but it grew on her over time to become a treasured favorite. (As an aside, she urged the audience to try Mona’s Musc which is a particular favourite of hers from the line, and mine too). Ambre includes notes of cedarwood, ylang ylang , benzoin, tolu and vanilla.
Another powdery Amber is Coudray’s Ambre et Vanille.
5. Dead Center Ambers
Mitzah by Dior La Collection Priveé
Birgit explained that she sees Mitzah as occupying the amber middle ground. It is a good representation of the genre with distinctive herbs and spices and outstanding longevity.
Another Dead Center Amber is Ambre Precieux by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, which to my nose, while still being a “straight-up amber”, is also a little more feminine than most.
6. Summer Amber
Opus VI by Amouage
This is the most recent release from Amouage’s Library Collection. Birgit describes it as a “Star Trek Amber” because it feels to her like a futuristic hologram. This is because while it has a strong character, it lacks weight. This makes it a perfect amber perfume choice for warmer weather. I’d happily have a bottle of this in my collection if the price was less prohibitive.
Two more amber categories were available for us to try at leisure after Birgit’s talk. These were:
7. 1980’s “Vintage” Style Ambers
Calvin Klein Obsession and Estée Lauder Youth Dew Amber Nude
8. Amber & Friends
Caron’s Pour Un Homme, Armani Privé’s Ambre Soie and Shiloh X
Birgit said that if there’s one thing she has learned about perfume from her scented journey so far, it is to never rule anything out and never judge to quickly. Great advice for us all, I think.
After the talk Birgit got a chance to meet several of her readers, which she was particularly pleased about. A gracious, witty and thoughtful speaker, it was an absolute pleasure to spend an evening in her amber scented company.