Ambre Sultan fragrance notes

    • amber, cistus, vanilla

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Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan is the Elvis Presley of amber fragrances – it’s left the building, but its influence is still felt everywhere. Its sugar rush of resins playing tag with dry, aromatic herbs is a motif riffed on by countless ambers since, such as Mitzah, Amber Absolute, and, though Chanel would rather die than admit it, even a teeny tiny corner of Le Lion.

Why ‘left the building’? Well, two reasons. First, I have just drained the last drops from my bottle. Second, for such an immediately thick, knotted muscle of a thing (#thuglife), Ambre Sultan is surprisingly short-lived on the skin.

Ambre Sultan will never not smell glorious to me, though. The love child of a Christmas tree and a lump of cassonade, it smells like a golden resin melting down on your skin on a hot day, then hardening again like a layer of shellac. It is light and dark all at once, its breathy presence one of dusty books, sunlit herbs, burnt incense, and polished wood.

Now that I’ve drained the last drops of Ambre Sultan, I’m eyeing Dior’s Mitzah like it's the last slice of pizza. I am also reassuring myself that, in the absence of Ambre Sultan, I can always suckle at the tit of its genus (Shalimar, according to Luca Turin). But ah! There is a special, rough-hewed charm to Ambre Sultan that is quite different to that of Shalimar, and I will miss it. After all, though Elvis’ music surely owed a great debt to that of Carl Perkins and Little Richard, nobody shook their hips quite like Elvis.
24th July 2023
Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens (1993) is an amber fragrance from both a perfumer and creative director that truly understands amber. Now I don't say this lightly, as there have been many interesting takes on the subject since it first became popular in Western commercial perfumery at the beginning of the 20th century, with the obsession with "Orientalism" reaching a fever pitch into the Roaring Twenties after beginning in the Gilded Age. Most Western takes patterned themselves after those early successful Western ambers, which included syrupy spicy ones like Dana Tabu (1932), or more powdery examples like those found among Guerlain's famous perfumes. Even the California Perfume Company, later renamed Avon Products in 1932, would develop an in-house amber accord that relied more heavily on the labdanum, vanilla, and dustiness of nutmeg than anything else, creating a velveteen "Avon amber" that ended up being stuffed in absolutely everything the brand made into the mid-century and beyond. What Serge Lutens does here via Christopher Sheldrake however, is ride closer to the virile and musky-sour ambers hailing from The Middle East, ambers that most dare not touch outside a few late-80's/early 90's powerhouse fragrances looking for a kick in a yarbolls that wasn't animalis or castoreum-based. He then takes this concept and "tames" it somewhat with green notes.

Lutens doesn't present his amber quite that raw, and it is smoothed down Avon-style with vanilla and spices, although some of the exoticism that eludes most Western amber perfumes leaning more heavily into the spice or vanilla comes through here.. I can't imagine they'd have dared called this "Ambre Sultan" without at least partially trying to capture the feel of the real deal, and so they do. Ambre Sultan was also a defining moment for early Lutens work, as part of the original Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido collection that introduced the world to the bell jars now more associated with Lutens than his former employer. Ambre Sultan's dark musky spiciness and thick opacity more or less defined the Lutens style right alongside the fruity spiced woodiness of Féminité du Bois by Serge Lutens (1992), first released as a Shiseido fragrance. Together, these two would spawn unofficial sequels and flankers as successive Lutens creations for the Palais collection were either takes on the wood note of Féminité du Bois, or the musky amber of Ambre Sultan. The fragrance itself here is pretty self-explanatory, with a thick resinous amber that have touches of animalic musk, a sliver of sourness tempered by the greens of angelica, oregano, bay, and myrtle. Benzoin and vanilla bring in the classic smoothness to keep it palatable to Western tastes, while coriander, patchouli, and sandalwood play up the exoticism.

While I'd hesitate to call Ambre Sultan a reference amber, I'd definitely call it a reference for how the "rest of the west" would try and tackle amber going into the 21st century, ditching the syrupy spice of the early 20th century model to go in greener directions and eventually woodier ones to allow more animalic notes to be present without making their ambers smell like a return to 1982, This spiky, green, woody-dusty contrast with resins, vanilla, and musk would thus become the "new norm" with amber notes, especially as woody-amber molecules became more readily-available to replace any costly natural woody materials like the Mysore Sheldrake dropped into Ambre Sultan. In essence, if you want a more-natural and wholesome version of what designers in the 30 years since have bastardized with fake oud notes and "superambers", look no further than Ambre Sultan. Chergui by Serge Lutens (2001) would be the unofficial sequal to Ambre Sultan, but smells less like "real" amber and more like the old Tabu-model that most Westerners (especially Americans) seem to prefer. So if you're not ready for a real taqueria, and even a taco truck scares you, but you're also beyond Taco Bell or Chipotle, then Chergui is basically the Taco Del Mar or Baha Fresh of ambers, whilst Ambre Sultan is closer to authentic, but the guac will still cost you extra. Good stuff, and one of the few I'd actually consider adding to my collection from the house. Thumbs up
15th January 2023

refered to the original palais royal version..
Opinion referred to the intermediate version of which I keep just under 100ml and I was able to test thoroughly; of the original version (palazzo) I have only a small sample and of the new version I avoid any test since (they tell me) it has become yet another sugary and cloying abra ... what a pity! It is simply THE amber perfume, as long as you really like amber as a single and solo note. It starts with green notes of laurel and oregano (recalls the opening of Interlude man by Amouage), which immediately disappear and give way to the riot of alternating resins. It goes from the clear resin, the one that recalls fresh pine cones, to the incensed one that recalls the interior of a church. Then it settles on a warm, full-bodied and round amber, sweet of that sweet that only amber can give, different from the sweet of vanilla. Beautiful perfume and for me, to date, the best amber ever heard.
19th November 2022
Ambre Sultan is, for a certain generation of fragrance enthusiast, the reference amber. (Tom Ford Amber Absolute was yet another darling in this category, though, post-discontinuation, that one has fallen from its pedastal due to lack of availability.)

Like Chergui, Ambre Sultan's appeal has been diminished somewhat by a veritable tidal wave of niche competition, some of which is quite formidable. Still, Ambre Sultan distinguishes itself through delicate construction and its overall completeness. There is nothing "missing" here.

Ambre Sultan is a very perfumey, very herbal amber. It's a touch honeyed and more than a touch doughy, with its sweetness balanced by the medicinal tones of bay leaf (which is almost overdosed here, giving Ambre Sultan its "signature") and oregano. If the combination of bay leaf and oregano does not sound appealing to you, then stay away from this one.

Would I recommend Ambre Sultan as the reference amber today? Maybe, but more than likely not. Ambre Sultan straddles the line between classic and contemporary well enough to feel timeless, which is a great virtue, and it feels more complete to me than some of the others that get nearly as much attention. In that regard, you gotta give it credit.

But, on the other hand, there have been so many ambers to follow it, and many of them are more "ambery" ambers. Ambre Sultan wraps its amber accord behind a veil of incense smoke and herbal notes.

For those seeking a less perfumey, more contemporary take on the theme, the best, clearest articulation of the modern, vanillic amber that I've encountered is Elie Saab's Ambre, in which Kurkdjian crafted a purer, more focused, more wearable version of his Grand Soir concept. It really is nearly an amber-and-almost-nothing-but-amber perfume, but Ambre has a depth and roundness to it that I find missing in most of the other celebrated vanillic ambers.
30th October 2022
This fragrance type tends to smell better in the air than up close. Unfortunately, this particular fragrance doesn't smell good in either scenario. I detect a screechy ambroxan note throughout the entire drydown that clashes with the vanilla. It might be acceptable if you're new to fragrances, but I believe you'll quickly discover that there are much better alternatives available.
15th April 2022
This to me will always be the paragon of ambers.

In 2008, I wandered into Barney's in Copley Square Boston and discovered the wide world of high-end and niche fragrance (before I believe "niche" was even really a descriptor) and was struck by their Serge Lutens counter and its display of understated, elegant and somewhat austere bottles. I was really immediately drawn in by the dense and complex scents, otherworldly and enchanting to me at the time. The saleswoman offered me samples of three: Chergui, Arabie, and Ambre Sultan. I was smitten with all three and went on my way, using these small atomizers sparingly so as to relish them. Shortly thereafter, I flirted with fragrance buying, having purchased a handful of others in the next year or two (a couple of which were somewhat regrettable decisions in retrospect: Bond No. 9 Coney Island, yikes). However, curiously enough, I never bought a full bottle of any Serge Lutens. My collection only grew to about may 10 or so bottles at one point and I then started to direct my attention elsewhere.

Fast forward about seven years later, and the art of perfume making caught my attention after purchasing a few bottles of essential oil to diffuse. I continued pretty consistently but have never taken to another level, due to fear and anxiety of the sheer dedication and amount of money that must be invested to start a fragrance line and a small business in general (I am feeling more and more confident as of late, stay tuned). This has led, however, to much deeper appreciation for fragrance and scent, studying hundreds of natural materials and aromachems, learning from mentors in the fragrance community, collecting and educating myself through fragrance composition books, studying the history of perfume, and then came 2020.

2020, the year of horror, disbelief, anger, tragedy, and sadness in multitudes: I will leave it at that. What would preoccupy me during all this difficult stuff? Somehow, 2020 was also the year that out of nowhere, I decided, why not buy a few full bottles of some fragrances that I love and appreciate (a few he says, a FEW). I caught the full bottle bug, as it were, and I am just now trying to reign it in—and it hasn't even been a full calendar year!

I finally purchased bottles of Chergui, Arabie, and Ambre Sultan, twelve or so years later (and I didn't stop there as far as Serge Lutens is concerned, no doubt). So I sit here, with it sprayed on the interior on my forearm, and I periodically sniff through each stage of its development and big love is still there. That opening is rapturous bliss, warm, sweet and resinous, then in the dry down, the oregano, bay leaf, angelica, and myrtle, these are what sing on my skin in the most wonderfully peculiar manner; ahhhh...this is what got me hooked, this left field of herbal melange with animalic undertones. Then it dries in time to a dry myrrh and somber, dusty labdanum, with an outline of benzoin and vanilla; mythical, even transcendental to my nose.

What I've learned in my full bottle journey this year is sometimes you go back "home" to what initiated that spark, what ignites that passion, drives one's desire and is a reminder of what is essential, These are indulgences of what are sensory and sensual, after all. Will I continue to acquire more? Yes, but one most slow down and eventually stop somewhere—it has already surpassed what could be considered practical or even dare I say healthy (I've been a voracious collector at heart since I was single-digit aged). I do think, however, that if I had to stop here, I'd be happy that I finally have a bottle of my Ambre Sultan.
8th March 2022
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