Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens)

More of a basis for a scent than a main premise, perfumery amber -- that public-domain blend of labdanum, benzoin, styrax, and vanilla found in every "Oriental" fragrance -- is used to suggest the golden sunset glow (if not the actual presence) of its fossilized namesake. Because amber cleaves to a fixed formula from which nothing can be subtracted, the perfumer's task is to add the notes which will distinguish it from other ambers-- or else bury it altogether.

Often the amber's quality dictates the extent to which it is subsequently embellished. A poor amber can be concealed -- at least until drydown -- with flowers and spices heaped high. Conversely, a truly fine amber can withstand a higher degree of austerity without danger of the perfumer being accused of stinginess. In such a case, fewer additives allow for unimpeded appreciation of amber's merits.

Ambre Sultan begins with a saturated labdanum with sweet, nourishing, honeylike overtones. The few notes chosen to adorn it are worthy of contemplation, if only because they are so adamantly savory. Oregano (Origanum vulgare, a cousin of marjoram and distant relative to mint) contributes welcome hints of salt and butter, while bay laurel introduces both expansive warmth and greenwood bitterness to the accord.

The effect strikes me as both medieval and medicinal, as if Ambre Sultan were some sort of curative handcrafted by a wandering root-worker who has managed to stay one step ahead of the Witchfinder General. This impression is strengthened by odd snuffed-candle notes of hot tallow and sooty smoke-- an effect I assumed had to be a mirage until it repeated itself identically on the second, third, and fourth wearings. One can imagine this scent pervading a sacred place, an alcove where time has stopped and where secrets are hidden amid the flickering light of fragrant oil lamps.

Even when muted by time, Ambre Sultan retains a distinctive richness that is a pleasure to take to bed after living within its aura all day. Each night that I spent with my cheek pillowed on my forearm, I found myself turning to sniff my wrist and smiling. Sweet dreams, indeed.

Scent Elements: Labdanum, coriander, oregano, bay leaf, myrtle, angelica root, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla