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Amber Ambergris Animalic Carnation Musk Resins Review

Fiore d’Ambra by Profumum Roma

22nd June 2022

 

 

What I find disturbing about Fiore d’Ambra by Profumum Roma is that it is sweet and filthy in equal measure, like Youth Dew sprayed on a dirty crotch.  Unlike Ambra Aurea, which is immediately pleasant, Fiore d’Ambra mouths off at you in three different languages at once and gives you little time to catch up.  Best I can make out, the smell boils down to a particularly clovey stick of clove rock, sugar cubes soaked in antibiotics, and underneath, a stirring of some very unclean musks.  The combination is suggestive of both the pleasures of the headshop (musk cubes, unlit incense, dust) and of the faintly sour-sweet breath of unwashed ladybits that must have risen like yeast every time Henry VIII lifted a lady’s gown.

 

I love it.  I thumb my nose at anyone suggesting it is an amber, though.  Names are powerful things, but smell this without thinking of the ‘amber’ in the title or the fact that it sits right next to a similarly-named fragrance (Ambra Aurea) in the Profumum Roma catalogue, and you begin to see that its feral poop-fur quality aligns it far more closely with scents like Muscs Khoublai Khan (Serge Lutens), L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), and L’Ombre Fauve (Parfumerie Generale) than with stuff like Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens) or even Ambra Aurea.  

 

As an accord in perfumery, amber is both a comfort and a straitjacket.  On the one hand, the smoky-spicy sweetness of warm resins and vanilla never fails to hit, plugging into our dopamine receptors with the same ease as the smell of coffee first thing in the morning or something good in the oven when you’re hungry.   Amber cocoons you, satiating your basic appetite for warmth and richness.  It is the flannel pajamas of the scent world.

 

But there is not to distinguish between ambers – or if there is, it is a matter of minute variations to the left or the right of the same basic ambery accord.  Think of just how much really separates Ambra Aurea from an Amber Absolute (Tom Ford), say, or from an Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens), or a Mitzah (Dior Privée).   Past a certain point, you’re just playing with varying degrees of sweetness (vanilla), powderiness (benzoin), leather or caramel (labdanum), smoke (incense) and the accoutrements of spice or herbs.  The result always smells good.  But does it smell interesting or original?  Hardly ever.

 

Now, Fiore d’Ambra innovates.  It doesn’t even really smell like amber to me, unless you count any sweet element at all – here a soda stream-Coca Cola syrupiness – as ‘amber’.  The ‘opium’ element, which has traditionally been interpreted in perfumery by way of eugenol – a substance that is almost as verboten as opium itself these days – has probably been built with clove oil instead.  But the perfumers didn’t even bother to lather it up into a soft froth with geranium or rose, so the clove note juts out of the topnotes like a sudden erection.  The musks are sensual, but raw and unclean (a bit salty even), strangely reminiscent of the dry honey-toner-ink accord from M/Mink (Byredo).

 

The minute I smelled Fiore d’Ambra, I was reminded of the vials of Fleur Poudrée de Musc (Les Nereides) that the Conor McTeague (aka Jtd), my friend and the best fragrance writer in the world, sent to a group of perfume friends around the world in early 2015.  I think he got enormous fun out of the collective recoil.  It smelled like the most innocent of baby powders combined with the foulest of human shits, a merry middle finger to the frou-frou Botticelli angels and Ye Olde Italian Script of the brand itself.  Conor wrote this of Fleur Poudrée de Musc:  “Have you ever undressed somebody after a long day of winter sport, all those layers amplifying the scent of skin that’s sweated then dried multiple times? Remember that scent, then imagine some powder on top”.  I don’t know if Conor ever smelled Fiore d’Ambra, but I like to think he might have described it in much the same way.  

 

 

 

Source of sample: I purchased my 18ml travel bottle of Fiore d’Ambra from the Profumum Roma store in Rome, March 2022.  It cost €55.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Inge Poelman on Unsplash 

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Aquilaria Blossom by Areej le Doré X Agar Aura

26th May 2022

 

 

Aquilaria Blossom is an exciting new collaboration between Russian Adam of Areej le Doré and Taha Syed of Agar Aura, both oud artisan distillers and perfumers of repute in the oud and mukhallat community.  Russian Adam is something of a pioneer for the oud community in that Areej Le Doré was the first brand to make a commercially successful breakthrough from pure oud distillation into the bigger market of niche spray perfumes.  In doing so, he opened new doors for the rest of the oud artisan community.

 

And now it seems that Russian Adam is once again forging new market pathways both for his own brand and others, this time with a marketing strategy known as collaboration, a partnership-based strategy that expands the commercial reach of both partners, cements reputations, and deepens the customers’ feeling of engagement and authenticity associated with the brand.  Areej le Doré’s first collab was with Sultan Pasha Attars on Civet de Nuit (review here). 

 

For us consumers, the important thing is to understand what we are getting in terms of value added.  How are the two styles of the two collab partners different, or similar?  Why does a collab between them make sense, both for them as artisans and for us as the people who end up buying and wearing this perfume?  For readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with the respective styles and signature ‘moves’ of Taha Syed and Russian Adam, let’s take a closer look at them individually before examining the end result of their collaboration, i.e., Aquilaria Blossom.   

 

Taha Syed of Agar Aura is a famous artisan oud distiller, with a reputation roughly at the same level of Ensar Oud (they are fierce competitors).  Though unfamiliar with his mixed media work, I have tested and reviewed two of his pure oud oils for my oud series here and here (I purchased both samples directly from Taha).  The common thread I found in both ouds was that his style is deceptively clean and minimalist, eventually revealing very complex substrata.

 

But Taha is also famous for his support for the idea of using fractionated compounds of oud oil to ‘build’ a more complete or compelling aroma.  In oud distillation, as in any essential oil distillation, the quality of the aroma of the compounds in the distillate varies according to many different factors (read here for more detail), one of which is the timeline at which the distillate is ‘pulled’ out from the still. 

 

For example, in ylang, the distillate produced in the first hour of distillation is known as Extra, with the grades of First, Second, and Third following in sequential order.  The descending order is generally thought to correspond to a descending quality, though lack of standardization in the essential oil distillation business makes this extremely difficult to verify and is often purely conjecture.  I am not sure that fractioning is that precise or quantifiable a tool.  But what it does allow for is a bit more room to play for the artisan who is distilling the oil.  

 

The upshot is that at each stage (or ‘pull’) of the oud distillation process, the distillate possesses some characteristics that customers find desirable and some that are less so.  The artisan’s job is to figure out how to amplify the desirable traits and weed out the less desirable ones.  What Taha Syed is known for doing is separating out the oud distillate into individual compounds and then putting them back together in a way that fits with the idea he holds in his head.  If the customers love the smoke and leather notes of a particular style of oud oil, but not the more sour, abrasive ones, Taha can separate them out and discard what he doesn’t need.  A retrofitting of sorts[1].  Apparently, this is now a quite common approach in the pure oud distilling world. 

 

Russian Adam, on the other hand, is probably best known for the Areej le Doré perfumes, many of which I have reviewed here on this blog.  His perfume compositions tend to be baroque, retro-styled florientals that lean hard on rare raw materials (oud oil, real deer musk, genuine ambergris) but stop short of making them the entire point of the exercise.  The result is often as pungent as its constituent raw materials, but you would never mistake it for a simple distillate; these are clearly perfumes.

 

Interestingly, his pure oud distillation work under the Feel Oud banner tends to be far more experimental.  Read through my pure oud oil reviews (grouped and alphabetized here: 0-CD-KL-O, and P-Y) to see reviews of Russian Adam’s pure oud oils and you’ll see what I mean.  From runny Brie to green curry oil and jasmine, his oud oils are perhaps the quirkiest and most playful I’ve seen in what can be a very po-faced genre.   

 

So, without further waffling on, how does Aquilaria Blossom – as a collab between two oud artisans who also happen to be self-taught perfumers – fare both as a fragrance and as a representation of two quite different artistic styles?

 

Let me start by saying that Aquilaria Blossom surprised me by its lightness and its simplicity.  Now, never were two words more guaranteed to make the Basenotes boys sweat than these, so let me clarify.  When I say ‘light’, I mean that texturally, it wears as thinly and elegantly on the skin as an Hermès silk scarf (compared to, say, an Aran sweater).  This isn’t the bulky ‘stacked to the rafters’ scent experience we are used to from Areej le Doré.  It wears on the skin in the same way as Dehn Oud Ateeq (Abdul Samad Al Qurashi) does, which is to say a sheer but durable wash of scent on the skin.

 

And when I say ‘simplicity’, I mean that this isn’t a perfume that crowds in so many notes and accords that all you smell is a thick mud of absolutes.  It remains legible, uncluttered  – no squinting required to make out what it is that you’re smelling.

 

Don’t know about you guys, but those are both positives in my book.  It certainly makes the scent easier to describe.

 

The TL;DR:  Aquilaria Blossom is a fresh, spicy scent that pairs a juicy floral-tart citrus accord with a fine-grained, horsey leather (most likely the result of that ‘touch of oud’ promised in the notes list), bracketed by an ambrein-rich resinousness that seems to build from nowhere about six hours in.   

 

The feature-length movie version: A one-two punch of a tarry citrus and a pop of (briefly) gamey oud opens the scent with a dramatic flourish, holding court in that vein for quite some time.  The citrus accord, pithy with bergamot and aromatic-woody with yuzu, is bitter but also balmy, with a waxy perfumeyness that brings to mind orange blossom.  If you’ve ever had those strange Japanese gummies that taste both citrusy and floral in the mouth (think Diptyque’s Oyedo), then you have an idea of what this smells like.  For the record, this is the only even vaguely floral part of the scent, for me at least.  

 

A note on the oud (or ouds) used.  They are not specified and maybe not even the point.  But I do wonder if Taha Sayed use compounds of different ouds at various points of the perfume’s composition to highlight an effect he wanted and discard the rest.   For example, the briefly animalic pop of oud at the start might be a fractionated compound of a Hindi oil, because we get the spicy hay and leather notes of a Hindi but none of its depth or range.   And while the faint undercurrent of sour berries and stale radiator dust that soon develops under the skin of this opening might point to a Cambodi, who really knows, because there sure ain’t any caramel. 

 

Whatever it is, the main effect of oud is to start building a lightly gamey leather accord that stretches all the way from the top of the scent to its basenotes.  The citrus notes eventually fall off, as they do, but when they do, you don’t lose any of the freshness initially created by them, largely because the leather that the oud whips up is so elegantly thin.

 

Ambergris sometimes adds this wonderfully silty, horsehair muskiness to a composition.  Combined with the oud in Aquilaria Blossom, I find this produces the impression of being in a tack room, the air thick with the scent of saddles freshly taken off heated horseflesh.  A touch of castoreum (beaver butt) adds to the soupy animal warmth.  Yet, the doors of this putative tack room have been flung open to let the fresh smells of flowers and hay in from the fields.  And maybe someone peeled an orange an hour ago, its volatile skin oils still staining the air.   

 

‘Aquilaria Blossom’ is so-named for what both Taha Syed and Russian Adam imagined what a flower growing out of an Aquilaria tree might smell like.  But despite the listed magnolia and neroli, the only floral touches I perceive are brief and upfront, worked into the perfumey bittersweetness of the citrus notes in the opening.  Thankfully, the neroli doesn’t go soapy on me, or perhaps it does and all I end smelling is saddle soap, which is the only way I take my soap in perfumery anyway.

 

The ending really does come as a bit of a surprise.  It shows up right when everything else is winding down, but unlike that one drunk guy who shows up at 3 am, it is most welcome.  One by one, all the other notes seem to get siphoned off into a golden cloud of glittery resin particles, anchored by a rubbery licorice myrrh, and thickened only slightly by a subtle (thin) vanilla.  The ending, like the rest of the scent, feels deliciously sheer.  This is a scent where all the molecules are spread out and have ample room to breathe. 

 

In the end, how much of Taha and how much of Russian Adam actually got into Aquilaria Blossom?  I think the light, minimalistic structure is more Taha than Adam, but then I haven’t smelled any of Russian Adam’s fresher, more citrus-forward perfumes, like Chinese Oud (though his Limau Hijau under the Feel Oud banner is very citrus-forward) and I only know Taha’s work through his pure oud oils.  All I can say with confidence is that Aquilaria Blossom has none of that heady, musky floriental thickness of body that we are used to in Areej Le Doré releases.

 

Is it possible that two oud greats came together and created….a freshie?  Maybe!  Russian Adam is an innovator and this is possibly him shaking things up.  Aquilaria Blossom is fragrant and aromatic, woody and bright.  It lingers on the skin and in the air but feels like no weight at all on the skin.  But that’s not to say that its simplicity is, well, simple.  I’m reminded of the line in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he says “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / I am large, I contain multitudes”.  Aquilaria Blossom is relatively simple and straightforward.  But it too contains multitudes.  Multitudes of hay, ambergris, spice, citrus peel, and wood rot all tucked away neatly into one long thin line of leather.

 

 

Source of sample:  A 2ml sample sent to me free of charge by Russian Adam (I paid customs).   

 

Cover Image:  Photo, my own, of Aquilaria Blossom sample next to piece of Wild Thai agarwood for scale.  Please do not distribute, circulate or use this photo without my permission.

 

 

[1] For example, on the Agar Aura website, Taha describes his technique for Berkilau Hitam, a discontinued oil, as follows: ‘Berkilau Hitam is the pure isolated base-note fractions of the agarwood extract (and approximately 6 times higher in quality: Berkilau raw materials). This is pure wood, resin, and smoke. These are the same aromatic fractions that most people associate with actual burning agarwood, Fractions which are either missing altogether in many oud oils, or extracted using inferior distillation techniques. Scientifically speaking, this oil literally consists of only the heaviest, densest, richest aromatic compounds found in agarwood (read: darkest smelling)[1].’ Interesting, no?

 

Ambergris Ambrette Floral Independent Perfumery Iris Myrrh Orange Blossom Review Smoke Spice Spicy Floral Violet White Floral Woods Ylang ylang

Hera by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

22nd May 2022

 

 

Two fragrances do not an evolution make, I’m aware.  But I can’t help feeling that Spell 125 and now Hera mark a departure for perfumer Liz Moores, away from perfumes that either reference classical styles (Dryad – a green chypre in the fashion of Vol de Nuit, Bengale Rouge – a spicier, more balsamic take on Shalimar or Emeraude) or espouse a particular trope like leathery incense (Anubis) or rose (Tobacco Rose).  Rather, Her and Spell 125 seem to be a bold move towards abstraction, wherein the perfumes are much more than a good smell – they are an expression of an idea.

 

Take the complete lack of literalism in Hera, for example.  You look at the notes and the description, and you think, ah, ok, a wedding bouquet perfume.  Lush, creamy white and yellow florals spilling over a whale-boned corset of puffy marshmallow musk.  Romantic, serene and beautiful in that conventionally feminine manner expected of brides.  But you don’t actually get any of that from Hera.

 

The first surprise is an atomic cloud of spicy violet-iris powder, a diffusive ballooning of molecules powered by what feels to me like aldehydes but is actually ambrette, a natural musk derived from the musk mallow plant.  The apple peel and grappa facets of the ambrette sharpen the violet sensation of the opening and feathers the whole thing into an ethereal mist.  But in no way does this smell pretty or candied or like face powder.  No dainty bridal pastilles here, no Siree.

 

There is also – immediately – the tarry benzene edge of Extra or First Ylang, announcing the first of the floral absolutes that don’t really smell like their usual floral representations in perfumery.  Ylang is always painted as banana-ish or custard-like, but in truth, the natural stuff (essential oil) often has this surprisingly creosote-like smokiness that most often gets smothered by perfumers with sandalwood or vanilla, in the hope of squishing it into a more banana custard shape.  Here, the ylang is uncut and unsweet.  And it definitely doesn’t smell like banana custard. 

 

The surprisingly true ylang in Hera is soon joined by a spicy Sambac jasmine – again, not the creamy, sweet white jasmine of conventional perfumery, but more the authentically leathery-sour twang of Sambac absolute.  The florals do not smell lush, sweet or traditionally feminine.  In fact, Hera does not even smell particularly floral.

 

The central surprise of Hera – its abstraction – is the way in which this tug of war between potent floral absolutes takes place inside this smoky cloud of iris-mimosa-violet powder, stacked one on top of another like a matryoshka doll.  It is an incredible feat of construction that turns florals as heavy as jasmine, orange blossom, and ylang into a fizzy, violet-colored ether.

 

With time, another layer of the matryoshka reveals itself as a murky accord that smells like tobacco but is probably ambergris.  This lends the perfume an aura of salty, powdered skin, like the glow on healthy young skin after mild exertion.  Momentarily, the interaction between the purplish dry-ice florals and damp, tobacco-ish ambergris produces an impression of Caron’s Aimez-Moi (which itself smells like a pouch of moist, tobacco leaves dotted with anise and dried violets).  But this impression is fleeting.

 

Hera feels spicy but remains utterly air-filled and diffuse, as if someone has tried and failed to plug cinnamon sticks and clove buds into an ever shifting dust cloud of wood molecules.  There is also something like myrrh, with its dusty, minty-latexy bitterness.  But Hera never gets bogged down in the thick, sweet thickness of resins, thus neatly sidestepping any effort to pigeonhole it as an incense.  Yet, the spices and the myrrh do give Hera a hint of what I imagine medieval candy might have smelled like, a sort of salty-herbal-fizzing concoction that, when ingested, banishes all evil.    

 

The perfume seems to deepen, but the overall sense of its construction – a complex whirligig of chewy florals and tobacco inside a bright, acidic haze of floral high C notes – remains consistent.  I picture Hera almost synesthesically, a violet-greige cloud of molecules that spark off each other like electricity.

 

It is an abstract experience, similar to the hard-to-define Spell 125 or even Seyrig (Bruno Fazzolari), but that’s not to say that Hera doesn’t also meet the original brief, which was to honor Liz Moores’ daughter, Jasmine, on her wedding day.  Indeed, Hera feels fizzy and bright and sensuous.  It smells optimistic.  

 

What Hera absolutely is not is a re-tread all the tired tropes of traditional bridal perfumery, so if you’re expecting something conventionally feminine or sweet, then park your expectations at the door.  Hera feels made for a lifetime of marriage – interesting, complex, wistful, packed with all the bittersweet moments of a relationships that morphs over time – rather than for one single shiny, glittery, picture-perfect day.  And in my opinion, it is all the better for it.  

 

Source of sample:  Sent free of charge to me by Liz Moores, with no expectation of a review, let alone a positive one. 

 

Cover image:  Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash  

Aldehydes Ambergris Animalic Attars & CPOs Chocolate Civet Cult of Raw Materials Floral Honey Independent Perfumery Jasmine Leather Musk Oakmoss Review Tobacco Ylang ylang

Civet de Nuit by Areej Le Doré X Sultan Pasha 

28th April 2022

 

 

When reviewing a collaboration between two well-known figures in the indie-artisan scene, especially two friends with ten years of cross-pollination of ideas between them, the question becomes whether to review the fragrance for the small band of fans of people already intimately familiar with the styles of both Russian Adam and Sultan Pasha respectively, or for the broader group of people who just want to know what the perfume smells like.  Because I think the hardcore indie fans of both brands are well catered to by Basenotes threads here and here, I write this review for anyone who wandered in off the Google high street.  

 

Civet de Nuit is a retro-style floral musk featuring antique civet and a powdery oakmoss and amber drydown.  It is something of a Picasso, cycling through different color periods.  The opening is its Blue Period, a plush, anisic eddy of old-school florals inside the wistful heliotrope-and-violet powder room of L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain), albeit one reimagined through the lens of a dense indie musk – all licked skin, honeyed, damp cocoa powder.

 

In its heart, Civet de Nuit slides into a Yellow Period, dominated by an animalic acacia honey, sandalwood, and ylang combination.  Fans of Montaigne (Caron) will especially like this part.  The ylang in Civet de Nuit does not particularly of banana itself or of banana custard, but more like the animalic, fuel-like gassiness of a banana stem degrading in a brown paper bag.  It is simultaneously sharp and doughy.

 

In its very last stretches, Civet de Nuit enters its Brown Period, where the florals desiccate to a musty, leathery oakmoss (withered brown dust) that recalls the far drydown of both Bal à Versailles (Jean Desprez) and Miss Balmain (Balmain), an indeterminate ‘brown’ woodiness, glimpses here and there of amber resin, and a stale, saliva-ish accord that might be tobacco (but is rather similar to the brackish honey note present in Onda by Vero Profumo).   

 

The civet in Civet de Nuit is actually very subtle, reading more like a powdery deer musk than the jutting floral sharpness of civet paste.  It is likely that, being vintage civet, it has mellowed over time and lost all its urinousness.  Civet de Nuit is a complex fragrance that cycles through multiple stages on the skin, with the last occurring a full 24 hours after the first spray.

 

Honestly, though I think Civet de Nuit smells amazing, I find it hard to categorize because it seems never to smell the same on me twice.  I’m sure that after this review is published, I’ll wear it again and kick myself for missing something really important.  On my first test, I felt sure I had this pegged as a doughy floral honey scent, with the same burnt, yeasty cocoa effect as Sultan Pasha’s own Mielfleurs.   It smelled to me like all parts of honey production – propolis, pollen, chestnut honey, the bee’s arse, the wildflowers in the meadow, the wooden frame.  A hint of Slowdive (Hiram Green), perhaps?  Yet – and this is the head scratcher – there is no honey listed anywhere.  

 

On my first wearing, I also noticed something of the ‘corn masa’ nuance of Seville à L’Aube (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and the floral cream-of-wheat effect of Dries Van Noten (Frederic Malle), Feromone Donna (Abdes Salaam Attar), and Pheromone 4 (Agarscents Bazaar), produced by a combination of a white floral like orange blossom or jasmine with ambergris or sandalwood.  I love this malty, wheaten effect.  It smells granular and salty, like a knob of Irish butter set to melt in a bowl of hot porridge.    

 

On my second test, the powder came out to play in a way it hadn’t previously.  In particular, a thick Nag Champa indie-style musk.  I’d made sure to wear Mielfleurs (Sultan Pasha Attars) on one hand and Civet de Nuit on the other, to see if the floral honey comparison was right.  But while they certainly land in a similar place (crusty artisanal honey, left to stale pleasantly on the skin), the Mielfleurs attar was immediately smoky, thick, and chocolatey, while Civet de Nuit was a diffuse haze of floral powders and stick incense lifting off the skin.  I think I am only able to smell the sparkling lift effect of Civet de Nuit’s aldehydes when placed next to something with no aldehydes at all.  On this test, I thought Civet de Nuit felt particularly gauzy and gentle.

 

On my third test, I wore Civet de Nuit on one hand and vintage Bal à Versailles parfum on the other.  Though they are both retro civety florals, they are completely different fragrances for 80% of the ride.  Whereas Civet de Nuit had felt aldehyded and powdery on previous tests, side by side with Bal à Versailles, it becomes clear that its aldehydes are a mere spritz compared to the fierce Coca Cola-like effervescence of the Jean Desprez perfume.  While both perfumes feature civet as a headlining note, Civet de Nuit cloaks it in a velvety glaze of dark cocoa and a caramel amber sheen, weighing it down in that thick artisanal musk, and setting the temperature dial to an Evening in Paris.  By comparison, Bal à Versailles, despite the 30 years it has on Civet de Nuit, smells like that Fragonard painting of the girl on the swing with her slipper flying off – a sherbety fizz of bright florals, civet, and soap.  Interestingly, however, in the far drydown, Civet de Nuit and Bal à Versailles do seem to converge.  There is a slightly astringent, leathery ‘Miss Balmain’-esque oakmoss element to both, although at times it also smells like a dusty, rubbery myrrh.     

 

Only on my third wearing was I able to identify Civet de Nuit as having a clearly ylang character.  Ylang can be difficult to control in a fragrance because of its assertively fruity-sour nature and gassy, benzene-like properties.  One drop too many and you get something too mature, too 1980s.  Ylang can age a scent backwards like no other.  Here, it is slightly banana-ish (again, more gaseous decaying banana stem than banana custard) but quite a lot of its bitter, leathery nuances have also been left in.  Not a tropical take, therefore, but more along the lines of how Thierry Wasser used ylang in his Mitsouko reformulation of 2017-2018, lending a discreet cuir de Russie accent.  Nonetheless, the ylang does give Civet de Nuit that slightly bitter, perfumeyness that constitutes its retro floral character.  

 

Russian Adam and Sultan Pasha both have identifiable signatures that run through their work – powdery, pungent floral musks in Russian Adam’s case and funky honey-tobacco accords in Sultan Pasha’s – and both signatures are present in Civet de Nuit.  But I hadn’t realized until I tested Civet de Nuit just how similar their styles actually are.  Civet de Nuit fits seamlessly into the Sultan Pasha Attar stable beside Sohan d’Iris and Mielfleurs, both of which lean on an animalic floral honey for their pulse.  But it fits just as seamlessly into Areej Le Doré canon, right beside the musky, Nag Champa floral stylings of Koh-I-Noor and the delicious, powdery funk of War and Peace.

 

On balance, though, Civet de Nuit is far lighter and less bombastically-styled than any of these forbears on either side of the aisle. Elegant and almost soft, I highly recommend it to anyone who not only loves retro florals but the furred weight of the real musks, sandalwood, and oakmoss used in the artisanal indie perfumer scene these days.   

 

 

Source of Sample: A 10ml bottle of Civet de Nuit was sent to me free of charge by the brand for review (I paid customs). This did not affect my review.

 

Cover Image: Photo my own.  Please do not use or replicate without my permission.

 

 

Ambergris Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Review The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Ambergris Reviews G-Y

4th March 2022

 

Ghaliyah Kacheri (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

An ambergris-forward version of the Ghaliyah series produced by Rising Phoenix Perfumery. Ghaliyah Kacheri adds a Hindi oud oil to the blueprint, but surprisingly, the Hindi keeps its big mouth shut until the far reaches of the drydown. What is most noticeable at first is the creamy, apple-peel freshness of champaca flower mixed with a silky, wheaten sandalwood-ambergris foundation. There is a golden tone to it, like flowers drenched in the saltwater glitter of ambergris.

 

The sour smoke of the Hindi oud breaks through after an hour, fusing with the salty, creamy florals to give the scent the patina of aged woods, leather, and campfire smoke. The contrast between the fermented funk of the Hindi and the rosy, shampoo brightness of the champaca is the key to its charm. Ghaliyah Kacheri is a clever and unusual floral ambergris with a great payoff. Sillage-wise, however, be aware this version is quite muted compared to the other Ghaliyah mukhallats in the series.

 

 

 

Molook (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Molook is a paean to the glories of two of the stinkiest raw materials in all of perfumery, namely, ambergris and the most animalic of Hindi oud oils – the kind revered in the Emirati market. The Hindi is up front in all its creamy, sheep-cheesy glory. But it is the ambergris that really shines in this mukhallat. Redolent with the fetid marine stink of the softer, darker types of ambergris, the note still bears some resemblance to its original whale dung sheathing. Its fecal warmth acts as a magnifying glass for the oud, heating it up until a three-dimensional picture of animal fur has been rendered.

 

I suspect that many Western noses might be initially put off by the hot, sour blue cheese aroma that swells up on the skin the minute you dab it on. But that is just Hindi oud for you. Its heavy breath of fermentation and tanned leather is what most people in the Arabian Peninsula identify as the real smell of oud.

 

Although I personally prefer the smell of what is marketed these days as Cambodi oud – fruitier, sweeter, and less animalic – there is no denying that something about Hindi oud keeps my nose returning to my wrist. Its odd sourness is deeply compelling, and more mysterious and interesting overall than Cambodi oud. The aroma of the Hindi oud settles eventually, becoming rounder and warmer (although not sweeter) as the ambergris takes over, softening the blunt twang of the oud with its salty, musky glow.

 

Insofar as any mukhallat can be said to lean towards one gender or another, Molook leans masculine. It is fascinating to wear, especially for those interested in getting a picture of what a high quality Hindi oud or natural ambergris smells like.

 

 

Photo by roberta errani on Unsplash

 

Pure Amber (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Like so many mukhallats with the word ‘amber’ in their title, this is not amber at all but rather, ambergris.  To anyone unfamiliar with ambergris – or indeed to anyone actually expecting amber – the opening could prove to be quite a shock. It is as earthy and stale as a clod of soil freshly dug up beside a marina where the carcasses of several marine mammals have begun to slowly rot. There is a distinct dung-like facet to the aroma but let me reassure you that the damp soil effect ensures the scent remains fresh-dirty rather than fecal-dirty.

 

Many ambergris oils or blends have a natural line of intersection with civet. But Amber makes it clear that this is a different animal altogether. Ambergris is a little stinky in that slightly rude, open-hearted way of farmland and the seaside, but not at all sharp, like civet can be. Pure Amber showcases the earthy, fungal undertones of ambergris, with a sideswipe of fresh horse dung for good measure. It warms up into the pleasant scent of freshly-mucked-out stable, complete with nuances of clean earth and warm straw. Equestrians and horse enthusiasts will understand that this is the scent of beauty itself.

 

Later, other nuances drift into the picture, principally an arid, aromatic sandalwood, and the vanillic smell of old books. It is at this stage that one realizes that Pure Amber is really a simple blend of two exquisite materials – white ambergris and sandalwood. The drydown is a careful balance between the nutty warmth of sandalwood and the mineralic radiance of ambergris. Those obsessed with the evocative scent of antique bookstores and long, windswept Atlantic beaches may want to lay their souls on the line for a sample.

 

 

 

Royal Amber Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Royal Amber Blend is a lower-priced reiteration of the Royal Amber AA Blend, below, and therefore a more streamlined version of the same basic scent profile. Like its progenitor, it features a medicinal, iodine-tinged amber note over a funky grade of ambergris. However, Royal Amber Blend lacks the sweet, taffy-like depth of the labdanum in the original. Instead, it is unsweet, greenish, and moldy in the vein of sepulchral ambers like Ambra Nera (Farmacia SS. Annunziata), occupying a sourish register that will be unfamiliar to those used to the vanillic ambers of mainstream perfumery. With its muscular, briny-herbaceous undertones, Royal Amber Blend actually smells far more Indian than Middle Eastern in style.

 

 

 

Photo by Maskmedicare Shop on Unsplash

 

Royal Amber AA Blend (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A very complex and interesting mukhallat. As with most mukhallats, it doesn’t have the traditional top-down structure that we are used to with Western alcohol-based spray perfumes. Instead, when it is first dabbed onto the skin, the notes appear as a thick blanket of scent before spreading out in concentric waves to reveal the basic facets of the scent. Body heat intensifies and warms the notes so that they become ever more radiant. 

 

Royal Amber is primarily all about the ambergris. The ambergris note is unabashedly inky and medicinal at first, denoting the helping hand of saffron, a material with iodine-like properties. This combination pulls the scent down a hospital corridor towards the operating theatre in much the same way that White Oud (Montale) does.

 

While the iodine note never disappears entirely, it is soon joined by the more attractive facets of natural ambergris, namely newspaper and sweet marine air. After a protracted period of salty sea air, the central accord takes on a far thicker and tarrier nuance, indicating the use of soft, dung-like black ambergris or, at the very least, a dark grey-brown specimen. The tarry facet is further accentuated by an unlisted labdanum resin. In its combination of sweet, sticky resins and animalic, leathery notes, Royal Amber shares common ground with the earlier Slumberhouse releases, such as Vikt and Sova.

 

Hearty, a bit rough around the edges, and with a one-two punch of ambergris and labdanum, Royal is simple but incredibly satisfying. It strikes me as the perfect scent for someone who spends a lot of time outdoors on beaches or in forests, preferring the scent of sticky tree sap and sea salt on their skin to the smell of perfume.

 

 

 

Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

 

Royal Amber Spirit AAA (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

It is educational to apply Royal Amber Spirit AAA side by side with ASAQ’s slightly lower-priced amber blend, Amber Jewels. There is a price difference of approximately $100, but the step up in quality and complexity is greater than the price differential suggests. While Amber Jewels is a straightforward portrait of ambergris, Royal Amber Spirit AAA dresses the ambergris up in exotic jewels and finery.

 

Amber Jewels is light in texture and body, with a slightly raw, marine quality that persists for most of the fragrance, before fading into the caramelized tones of labdanum amber in the base. It smells fresh – ozonic almost – as if filtered through a herb-laden breeze carried straight from the ocean.

 

Royal Amber Spirit, on the other hand, is immediately heavier and more sweetly ambery. Although the raw marine quality of ambergris is present and correct upon application, it quickly becomes fused with a luxuriant, balsamic amber that feels pashmina-thick. Compared to Amber Jewels, it is infinitely more textured and three-dimensional. It maintains a salty-n-sweet ambergris tenor almost all the way through, though it is pleasurably muffled by a waxy layer of amber in the final stretch. A judicious dose of dusty spice – saffron, cinnamon, and clove perhaps – swims around in the treacle-like murk of the amber, adding a pleasant heat. What emerges is a warm, dusty leather with rich, balsamic touches.

 

There is also, I believe, a touch of sweet myrrh – opoponax – in the mix, present in the form of a bubbling, golden resin that encompasses both the waxy, honeyed texture of almond butter and the verdant bite of lavender. The opoponax adds a herbaceous dimension that freshens the breath of the scent’s resinous backdrop. The scent finishes in a blaze of ambery-woody warmth that, though now lacking the salty radiance of ambergris, still feels multi-dimensional in scope.

 

I recommend Royal Amber Spirit AAA to serious ambergris fans with a discerning palate and the means with which to pay for it. Be warned that it is tremendously expensive at $469 per tola, give or take. Is it worth the price of admission? In my opinion, yes.

 

 

Royal Ambergris (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Coming as close to the aroma of an ambergris tincture as one can get in oil format, Royal Ambergris is a superb ambergris attar. It shares similarities with both Sweet Blue Amber by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Amouage’s Amber attar but is drier than the former, and more natural in feel than the latter.

 

At first, it smells of clean marine silt and low tide, but then smooths out into the enticing aroma of warm hay, clean horse stables, fresh sea air, and the great outdoors. Later, a tiny bit of golden sweetness creeps in. In general, this is an ambergris that tilts more towards earth and tobacco than resin. Highly recommended both for layering and wearing alone.

 

 

 

Sandal Ambergris (Aloes of Ish)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

As advertised, ambergris and sandalwood. The ambergris opening is earthy to the point of smelling like freshly-cut mushrooms caked in black soil. The fungal dampness feels clean and saline rather than sweet.

 

After a transition that smells of wet and then dry newspapers, the emphasis shifts to the sandalwood in the base. At this price level ($20 or so per quarter tola), it is improbable that this is pure Indian sandalwood. But even if the natural oils are fluffed out a little by synthetic sandalwood, the overall effect smells so natural that it is difficult to find fault. The sandalwood accord is buttery, salty, papery, dry, and aromatic. It is also durable, lasting for the better part of an entire day.

 

It is interesting to compare something like Sandal Ambergris with the Santal Ambergris tincture by Abdes Salaam Attar (La Via del Profumo). Both address the same theme and focus on the same two materials, and though one is all natural and the other not, they are both very pleasing takes. As always, however, you get what you pay for. The quality in the La Via del Profumo version is clearly superior, while the Aloes of Ish oil involves a little bit of willful fantasizing on the part of the wearer.

 

 

Saqr II  (Al Shareef Oudh)

Type: mukhallat

                                                                  

 

Saqr II is a mukhallat composed in honor of nature in all its brutal beauty. It focuses on ambergris (long golden beaches), oud (forests), Ta’ifi rose (flowers in inhospitable terrain), and Himalayan musk (animal fur). Saqr II provides the wearer with a truly kaleidoscopic experience – the florals, exotic woods, and musk all rushing out at you in a giddy vortex of scent – but maintains a rigorous clarity rarely experienced in such complex blends. The wearer can smell every component of the blend, both individually and as part of the rich, multi-layered fabric of the perfume.

 

The play of light on dark is well executed. The tart green spice of the Ta’ifi rose lifts the perfume, while salty-sweet ambergris lends a sparkle. These brighter elements prevent the darker oud and musk from becoming too heavy. The bright rose burns away, leaving a trail of leathery, spicy oud wood that is addictive, drawing one’s nose repeatedly to the skin. The oud here is smooth and supple, with nary a trace of sourness or animal stink. The musk, perceptible more as a texture than a scent, blurs the edges of the oud and rose notes into furred roundness that gradually softens the scent’s austerity.

 

The slight out-of-focus feel to this blend makes it far more approachable for beginners than many others in the Al Shareef Oudh stable. There is even a little tobacco-ish sweetness thanks to the ambergris. However, typical for the house, none of the materials have been dumbed down for a Western audience. The blend smells classic in a certain rose-oud way, but it is not clichéd. Its balance of dark and bright elements, sweet and non-sweet, dirty-musky and clean, is what makes it such a masterful example of its genre.

 

Saqr II is complex, beautiful, and above all, easy to wear. I love the fuzzy golden timbre of the ambergris in this scent, which lends it a tannic apricot skin edge. It is my personal favorite of all the Al Shareef Oudh mukhallats and the one I would recommend to beginners as a great primer on the brand’s overall approach and aesthetic. Beyond that, it is one of the most beautiful perfumes I have had the pleasure of smelling in my life.

 

 

 

 

Sweet Blue Amber (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Sweet Blue Amber is essentially a hunk of brownish-grey ambergris left to macerate in carrier oil until maximum halitosis has been achieved. The first time I tried it, I was repelled. The opening howl of civet struck me as foul, and the body of the scent thin and wafty. It smelled uncomfortably like someone with very poor dental hygiene breathing on me in a packed space. 

 

But now, with several years of ambergris experience under my belt, I can say that Sweet Blue Amber is just a very faithful rendition of grey or brown ambergris. This grade of ambergris is admittedly funky, but it eventually mellows out into a salty, skin-like scent that is very sensual in an organic way.

 

I like to layer Sweet Blue Amber under certain Western scents like Shalimar or Mitsouko to add a bodily funk missing from the modern versions. Jacques Guerlain once said that all his perfumes contained something of his mistress’ undercarriage in them, but even he would have scandalized at what Shalimar smells like with a layer of Sweet Amber Blue lurking beneath. Shalimar doctored in this way smells utterly carnal, the ferocious civety skank of the Sweet Blue Amber glowing hotly through the smoky vanilla of Shalimar, like tires on fire at a bacchanal.

 

A bottle of Sweet Blue Amber could be a brilliant DIY solution to fixing perfumes in your collection that have lost their animalic spark through reformulation, age, or the banning of nitro musks. Imagine the current versions of Bal a Versailles and No. 5 restored to their former animalic glory. The possibilities seem endless. Buy a tiny bottle of Sweet Amber Blue and have fun with it!

 

 

Photo by Andrea Cairone on Unsplash

 

Truffe Blanche (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Truffe Blanche is so-named because it contains white Alba truffle extract, orris pallida, and white ambergris from the West of Ireland. However, it does not smell particularly ‘white’, at least not in the manner that most people would interpret it in the context of a scent, i.e., creamy, cloudy, milky, icy in texture, with lots of white musks, blond woods, and so on.

 

Instead, Truffe Blanche is quite an earthy, dusty scent, its character driven in the main by a smoky birch tar, which loses no time in mopping up all the juicy sweetness of the Meyer lemon and florals used up top. Thanks to the benzoin, birch, a charred (meaty) guaiac wood, and white ambergris, Truffle Blanche smells most enticingly of old books, desiccated wood, soot, black leather, and the remnants of ash in the grate. The camphoraceous facet of benzoin is in evidence here, too, but the scent never feels fresh or minty.

 

As the scent develops, a few of the sweeter, more animalic notes make a run for it. Escaping from underneath the rafters of that leathery dust are a bittersweet ‘roasted’ caramel note, a dry vanilla bean, and a pungent, honeyed civet. The contrast between dusty library papers and syrupy-dirty civet is tremendously effective. Truffe Blanche succeeds because it manages to both smell great on the skin and evoke a place or a mood. 

 

Oddly, Truffe Blanche smells very differently on the skin compared to on the toothpick I used to fish out a drop. On wood, it smells immediately like a dry, caramelized vanilla – almost purely white ambergris and benzoin, with a faint smudge of soiled panties. On the skin, the dusty, smoky effects of the birch tar are far more in evidence and linger longer. However, it is worth noting that it too winds up in the same dry, ambergris-civet vanilla and benzoin track.

 

Truffe Blanche is, for me, one of the all-time standouts of the Sultan Pasha Attar range. If you too love the scent of dry vanilla pods, white ambergris, books, and dusty libraries, then this is most definitely worth your time.

 

 

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

 

Sheikh al Faransi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Sheikh al Faransi is a bestial blend of ambergris, oud, and amber that is intensely evocative of the sea, mountains, earth, and rot. It opens on a note of sweet varnishy decay, like a mixture of mold on an apple and mildewy furniture left to fester in an abandoned mansion. Something about the blend seems on the verge of collapse, which introduces the thrill of uncertainty.

 

Slowly the halitosis stink of grey-brown ambergris begins to peek out through the woody rot, bringing with it its unique alchemy of sea air, silt, and horsehair. It is met with a light dusting of icing sugar, likely an amber and sandalwood sweetener placed there to offset the suggestive saltiness of the ambergris.

 

For the longest time, the perfume lingers in a midsection of sea salt and sweet powdered amber. But the drydown is pure ambergris in the fullness of its mammalian splendor. It is gorgeous, and 180° removed from its rotting, feral, damply-fruited start. For a mukhallat, it is decidedly non-linear and exciting to wear. Recommended to those who are looking for a wild ride.

 

 

 

silencethesea (Strangelove NYC)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

silencethesea immediately joins the ranks of ambergris perfumes to try before you die. Although there are other notes or materials, to my nose, this smells as close to a pure ambergris tincture as is possible in niche perfumery.

 

Ambergris can smell very differently from piece to piece, grade to grade, etc., but the ambergris in silencethesea smells like a deserted beach in winter. It has a dry, oceanic smell, like the smell of stones and rocks left to dry in the sun after the tide has gone out. Dry salt, minerals, and the stony loneliness of inanimate objects on a beach with no people around to witness it.

 

Silencethesea smells completely organic to me – elemental, and a bit wild. It has the type of aroma that one finds utterly normal in nature but does not expect to find in a personal perfume, and thus, it feels shocking. It is raw and slightly intimate.

 

There is no warmth to the aroma, apart from the vague funkiness inherent to ambergris that reminds us that this is a substance that originated in the intestine of an animal. Wearing it is like wearing no perfume at all, because it smells more like the cold air in one’s skin and hair after a long, solitary walk on a windswept beach than a perfume. This is not a perfume for community or cuddling or clubbing. It is for the pleasures of solitude.

 

 

Photo by Shibi Zidhick on Unsplash

 

White Cedar Rose (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This scent is dominated by a buttery, grass-fed coconut milk accord with an oddly meaty ‘lime peel’ quality to it. Coconut can smell both creamy and savory, an effect that is pushed to breaking point here. In fact, if beaten any further, one suspects that the lactonic accord at the heart of White Cedar Rose would start forming small lumps of butter.

 

The cedar helps stabilize things by bulking out the coconut milk and adding a saline muskiness. But the citrusy, rosy brightness that cuts through the salted butter and coconut is what ultimately turns this simple coconut tanning cream into a delightful rum-and-coconut cocktail treat not far removed from Creed’s Virgin Island Water.

 

Once the crazy lactones calm down a bit, I can perceive more clearly where the beefy saltiness is coming from – a golden, toffee-like, but also downright marshy ambergris and civet pairing in the base. The creaminess of the coconut and the bright lime notes slot into place over this sexy, skin-like ambergris for a result that is just wonderful. The clean smokiness of the cedar notes combines with the salty, sweaty skin notes and coconut milk to conjure an image of steamy lumberyards and beaches. If you love Virgin Island Water by Creed, Sex and the Sea by Francesca Bianchi, or even Cadjmere by Parfumerie Generale, then make it a priority to sample White Cedar Rose.

 

 

 

Yeti Attar 2012 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is the single best double billing of ambergris and sandalwood currently in production. (Though, given the ominous 2012 tag in the title, I am not so sure about the ‘currently in production’ bit). Still, if you can get it, you are in for quite the experience. Yeti Attar coats the skin in a liquid hug of savory-sweet sandalwood with nuances of creamed coconut, peanut shell, and melted Irish butter. There is little better, when you are a sandalwood lover, than smelling the real deal and in such generous amounts.

 

Yeti Attar has a relatively simple structure – sandalwood, then ambergris, and then sandalwood again, like the best sandwich you ever ate but don’t remember ordering. When materials are as good as these – like the best conversationalists at a party – your job is simply to introduce them to each other and then leave them alone to do their thing. The ambergris used here is a subtle, golden one, with a spectrum of aromas ranging from earthy tobacco to damp newspaper and finally to dry, salty newspapers left out on a beach to curl up and yellow at the edges.

 

It is difficult to smell the ambergris in its totality when you smell it directly from the skin, and in fact, its nuances only reveal themselves in full when sniffed alongside something else on your other hand. This phenomenon is true of all attars featuring the finest grades of white ambergris – the scent profile is hauntingly subtle but its effect on the overall scent profound and noticeable. Once my nose smells another attar, and then returns to the Yeti Attar, I suddenly grasp all the facets of the ambergris used. Strange sensation!

 

The ambergris used here is soft, earthy, saliva-ish, intimate, and golden, like just-licked skin. It is not overbearing, dirty, or animalic in a horsey way. Yeti Attar 2012 is sensual and delicate to the point of being ethereal. A must-try for any sandalwood and ambergris lover.

 

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Source of samples: I purchased samples from Amouage, Maison Anthony Marmin, Arabian Oud, and Mellifliuence. The samples from Rising Phoenix Perfumery, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Strangelove NYC, Al Shareef Oudh and Sultan Pasha were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. The sample from Aloes of Ish was sent to me by a Basenotes friend.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

 

Ambergris Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Ambergris Reviews A-E

2nd March 2022

 

 

Afrah (Amouage)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The only nice thing I can say about Afrah is that its three-way clash between the fruity, musky ‘shampoo’ aroma of champaca flowers, the licorice-like basil, and the marine bilge unpleasantness of a soft, pooey (black) ambergris is, uh, original.

 

The opening is heady, with the champaca taking on the form of sticky peach syrup mashed into a sweaty clump of indolic flowers.  The basil gives the champaca a salty, minty licorice kick that lightens the load somewhat, but, in general, Afrah is heavy going.  There is something indigestible about its cyanide-ish brew of white flowers, honey, peach, and bitter almond. It is alluring and toxic in equal measure, reminding me of Hypnotic Poison (Dior) in feel, if not in aroma.

 

My main objection is that the civety stink of the ambergris refuses to play well with the other notes.  It manages to recreate with uncomfortable accuracy the sweaty, sugared pungency of the skin of someone with a medical condition like Type 2 diabetes.  I think should stop here lest I offend anyone who loves it.

 

 

Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash 

 

Ambergris Civet Caramel (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris Civet Caramel opens with a blast of intensely aromatic aromas, chief among them the ferrous twang of burnt caramel and the bitter, woody edge of freshly-ground Arabica beans.  In fact, the aroma is so true to life that it feels like you are standing directly behind the barista at some artisanal Ethiopian joint while they grind the beans to go into your pour-over.

 

The bitter char on the caramel saves the blend from excessive sweetness, and the coffee grounds give it a woody edge that is a pleasant surprise in a scent with the word caramel in its title.  Red-gold hints of maple syrup and autumn leaves thread through the coffee and caramel gloom, making me wonder if that a touch of immortelle has been roped in to add its handsome, late October sunshine appeal.

 

The ambergris makes its presence known very quickly for such a bolshy crew, elbowing past the maple caramel, singed coffee grounds, and autumn leaves to assert its marshy presence.  The ambergris used in this blend manifests as an unclean combination of licked skin and unwashed hair.  This salty funk blends well with the dry caramel for an effect that is far woodier and far less gourmand that one might imagine.

 

Gourmand fans – try this.  But be aware that you really need to love less conventionally pleasing accords, such as burned coffee grounds and salty marine funk, to fully appreciate it.  Fans of the half-edible, half-woody Parfumerie Generale scents such as Coze and Aomassaï will click with it.  Pink Sugar lovers need not bother.

 

 

 

Ambergris Grade I (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris Grade I is an interesting take on ambergris.  It does not initially smell of ambergris, but rather of bright soapy lemon and indeterminate fruits.  Later, however, hints of an outdoorsy sweetness with a side order of salt and lightly-toasted tobacco leaf signal its presence.  Most tinctures of white ambergris share a certain lightness of aroma that smells very little of anything save for mineralic rocks baking in sunshine and fresh sea air.  And this is the case here.

 

The mineralic glow of this grade of ambergris is the same as that used in exclusive Western perfumes such as the now-discontinued (but brilliant) Angelique Encens by Creed, and the glittery Encens Mythique d’Orient (Guerlain).  Not only does ambergris act as a fixative in these perfumes, but it magnifies the effect of the other materials – incense, rose – rendering their texture airy and almost effervescent.  The cool thing about Ambergris Grade I is that it allows us to study this effect in isolation.

 

 

 

Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya is less of an ambergris scent and more an archetypal attar smell, i.e.,  starchy saffron and high-pitched roses blended together.  This familiar rose-saffron pairing is enormously popular and thus finds traction in every single attar house.  The problem is that it runs the risk of being a little too familiar.  Either you have to put a twist on it for it to stand out or else you produce a version that out-exquisites all others in the crowded field.  Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya, though competent, fails to do either.

 

The model makes sense from a compositional point of view.  The pungency of the leathery saffron is mitigated by the soft sweetness of the rose, and in return, the rose gains a backbone.  This rose-saffron attar idea has been lifted wholesale into Western perfumery.  Most Western oud-themed niche perfumes are constructed around a central axis of rose and saffron, with a dollop of synthetic oud added in for extra screech woodiness.  This template, repeated from brand to brand, has inculcated in Western customers such a strong association between the materials of oud, rose, and saffron that, like Pavlov’s dog, all we have to do is smell saffron and we fill in the oud blank on our own.

 

And this is what happens here.  When you first smell Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya, the spicy rose-saffron duet makes the mind flash on oud.  There is no oud here, of course.  However, if you are a Westerner and want to have a rosy saffron mukhallat that recalls the traditional rose-oud-saffron triad without paying oud prices, then Ambergris Mukhallat Arabiya may do the job.  It is a somewhat traditional, sharp, and spicy blend, tilted towards the austere.

 

The delicate sweetness of ambergris is nowhere to be found in this scent.  It is missing, presumed dead under the pungent weight of the other materials.  Briefly there is the suggestion of something radiant, sparkling, and metallic lifting the spice and flowers, which could be the cited ambergris.  But in terms of actual aroma, the ambergris is undetectable.  It is simply a decent rose and saffron mukhallat.

 

 

 

Ambergris Taifi (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

The thrillingly tart, peppery scent of the Ta’ifi rose fills the nose upon application.  The scent of a Ta’ifi rose always reminds me of a raw beef filet encrusted in green peppercorns and harsh lemon peel, and this bears true here.  However, this version of Ta’ifi rose is far softer than the purer versions I have smelled from both Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Al Shareef Oudh.  Its lack of purity translates into a smell that is less pungent, which might be more appealing to noses unused to the nose-searing properties of the unadulterated stuff.

 

This mukhallat possibly contains a small quantity of Ta’ifi rose mixed with a greater quantity of rosa damascena oil from another region, such as Turkey or Bulgaria.  Or it might be that only Bulgarian rosa damascena was used, as rose oil harvested from Bulgaria features many of the same sour, herbaceous aspects of the Ta’ifi rose.  Either way, it doesn’t really matter (except to a purist) for this rose note is sublime – fresh, tart, with a pickled lemon edge that makes you want to smack your lips.

 

Ambergris Taifi becomes rosier and creamier as it develops, blooming into a rich and durable red rose accord that shimmers on top of the golden, salt-marsh ambergris beneath.  The ambergris does not assert its presence strongly aside from a salty radiance.  Instead, it acts as a heat lamp, magnifying the rose and causing it to vibrate in 3D splendor.  The blend finishes in a blaze of salted caramel and rose, casting a pink glow around the wearer.  For those who can stomach the price, this is a great rose-ambergris mukhallat.

 

 

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

 

Ambergris White Blackberry (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Fruit is difficult to capture well in attar and mukhallat perfumery because there are no natural enfleurages or extracts of fruit, leaving the perfumer with the choice between Jolly Rancher synthetics or naturals with a somewhat fruity character, like osmanthus or ylang.  Berries in particular are hard to get right.

 

When a synthetic fruit note is used alongside a bunch of naturals, its synthetic character can often become painfully apparent, like plopping a fake Nike trainer down beside an authentic one.  Place a fruit synthetic alongside real ambergris, for example, and it has the potential to stick out and catch on you, like a clothes pin forgotten inside a sweater.

 

Thankfully, this is not the case in Ambergris White Blackberry.  The blackberry note, though certainly synthetic, manages to be dark, plump, and slightly syrupy, with none of the ‘overexposed photograph’ shrillness of most synthetic berry notes.  This is probably due to the softening effect provided by a tandem of sweet, creamy amber and the earthy, musty ambergris.  Neither the amber nor the ambergris clouds the structure, however.  The texture remains crystalline, allowing the luscious berry to shine through uninterrupted. 

 

There is also a momentary hit of spice – cinnamon or clove perhaps – but this recedes quickly, leaving the focus on the blackberry.  The blackberry note is fleshy, but thankfully, doesn’t attempt photorealism.  It is more the suggestion of pulp and stained fingers than the metallic brightness of most synthetic berry notes.

 

Two ambery accords are notable here.  First, a traditional amber accord with perhaps a hint of maltol, acting like a simple sugar syrup to buffer the first explosion of berry flavors upon application.  Then, the earthy, almost fungal tones of the ambergris, which here smell like a clod of clean, wet marine soil freshly dug up near a harbor.  The mixture of the sweet and earthy really makes this an amber-ambergris duet really worth wearing.

 

This is one of the few fruity mukhallats that I can recommend without reservation, even to those who normally find fruit notes in perfumery off-putting.  The sweet, earthy magic of the ambergris is suggestive of the ground from which the blackberry bushes sprang, giving us the full blackberry-picking fantasy of ripe fruit, leaves, and humus-rich forest floor.  A true Pan’s Labyrinth scent.

 

 

Photo by emy on Unsplash

 

Ambergris White Chocolate Opium (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris White Chocolate Opium opens with a rich, nutty accord that smells like the steam that rises off a pan of flaked almonds fried gently in brown sugar.  This accord is enrobed in a silky white chocolate casing that manages to be creamy without being sweet.  Think translucent nut nougat dipped in artisanal white chocolate, with perhaps a tiny sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper for contrast.  It is admirably restrained, teetering on the edge of full-on gourmand territory but ultimately pulling back to give you a taste of chocolate and nuts without any of the calories, bloating, or regret.

 

Slowly, the ambergris in the blend begins to make its presence known.  A sweet and salty smell, full of brisk air and sunshine.  There is something of old paper here but also freshly upturned soil.  There is the sleepy suggestion of mustiness, like the mildewy aroma that clings to clothes taken out of storage for the winter season.  This aroma is not unpleasant because it never comes across to the nose as unnatural.  It simply mirrors the familiar scents of home, namely, closed-up closets, earth, newspapers, salt, vanilla extract, and the crumbed tobacco leaves from cigarettes. 

 

Unfortunately, the rich white chocolate accord does not last past the first hour and is disappointingly faint from the second hour onwards.  Longevity is good, but with the scent whittling down to a mere shadow of itself within hours, it is like buying an expensive balloon at a fairground and having it deflate to the size of a condom within minutes.  Still, something about the smell of salty, creamy white chocolate in Ambergris White Chocolate Opium is so pleasing that one is tempted to forgive its wimpy performance metrics.  Maybe.

 

 

 

Ambergris White Gold (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambergris White Gold is a great option for those who like the idea of ambergris but can’t deal with its often very animalic properties that often resemble halitosis, low-tide effluents, and dirty horse stables.  This is the friendliest, most approachable ambergris mukhallat on the block.  Opening with a thick caramel note so intense it approaches bitterness, Ambergris White Gold soon evens out into a musty, vanillic accord that smells like a cross between Communion wafers and old paper.  Underneath these softly sugared ‘white’ elements, there is an undertow of stale saliva and warm horse flank.  These notes merely nod at the presence of real ambergris but are not dirty enough to scare the truly skank-averse.

 

The blend is based on white ambergris, which is the finest and most expensive grade of ambergris.  White ambergris does not smell foul – in fact, it barely has a smell at all other than the scent of fresh, mineral seaside air.  If you smell white ambergris for a long time, you will also notice the subtle aroma of sea salt, paper, vanilla, and tobacco leaves.  These more delicate properties of ambergris have been enhanced in Ambergris White Gold through the addition of a caramelized amber note up top and a dry, minty vanilla in the base.  The overall effect is of a sweet, papery vanilla with facets of white sugar, pastries, salt, and clean marine air.

 

I recommend Ambergris White Gold to people who like the cleaner, sweeter side of ambergris, as well as to those who love gourmand notes such as salted caramel, pastry, vanilla, and mint toffee.  The closest equivalent to this in the niche sector would be Dzing! by L’Artisan Parfumeur, which employs a similar gourmand approach to an animalic material (musk).  Think of Ambergris White Gold as a sheaf of old manuscript papers, grown dusty and sweet with time, and finally, lowered into steaming vats of hot condensed milk and sea salt.

 

 

 

Amber Jewels (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Lovers of ambergris owe it to themselves to smell something like Amber Jewels at least once in their life, if only to establish a benchmark for quality.  The notes list says ambergris only, but forget that, as there is clearly a lot of labdanum doing the heavy lifting in the lower register.  The opening is pure marine air, thick, pungent, but also hyper-clean, as if all the elements have been doused in disinfectant.  It smells huge with a capital H – a hulking block of dusty rock, baking in the sun, the air fizzing with hot sea minerals, salt, and ozone.

 

Under the dusty minerals and caked-on sea salt, there is something balsamic shifting, keeping everything moist.  This comes across as something thick, tarry and black, with a rubbery sweetness in its undertow.  This charred rubber is a facet common to many ambergris-based fragrances.  It carries a tinge of smoke too, similar to the petroleum honk of some jasmine materials.  The sweet tar sitting under the marine notes acts as a layer of insulation for the more diffuse ambergris topnotes.

 

The ambergris is eventually joined by a rather masculine leather-amber accord, likely to be labdanum.  This base thickens and sweetens the ambergris somewhat, cloaking its salty sparkle in a dense blanket of leathery resin.  It is important to note, however, that the amber-ambergris accord never tumbles too far down the well of sweetness.  This is not the affably herbaceous amber of, for example, Ambre Precieux (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) or Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens).  In fact, it retains a slightly rough, textured woodiness that is very characterful.  It is precisely this salty, woody edge that will recommend itself to fans of amber scents that walk on the macho side of the fence.   Although not equivalent or even similar in smell, Ambra Meditteranea by Profumi del Forte has a similar brusqueness, so fans of that might want to give this a try. 

 

 

Photo by J Lopes on Unsplash

 

Amber Ood (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Despite the name, Amber Ood is neither amber nor oud but ambergris, and specifically the black, soft kind of ambergris so fresh it resembles the whale turd from whence it came.  Freshly dotted on the skin, Amber Ood smells like old peanut butter, ancient fishing tackle that has been shat on by seagulls, and the halitosis stench of someone who’s dislodged a kernel of corn from their back molars after not having flossed for two months.

 

I would love to be able to tell you that it gets better.

 

Both Indians and Arabs seem to love the fouler pieces of ambergris (black ambergris), finding the smell intensely erotic and skin-like.  But although the smell does eventually reveal some interesting hints of old newspaper, tobacco, and marine soil, Amber Ood retains this turd-cum-halitosis stench all the way through, ceding only to a bitter fir balsam and Ambroxan pairing at the tail end that smells like it has been cross-contaminated with a splash of Dior Sauvage.  The Ambroxan does nothing to mitigate the essential foulness of the smell.  Rather, it accentuates it, broadcasting the stench like an airborne virus.

 

 

 

Ambre du Soleil (Sultan Pasha Attars)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ambre du Soleil is a bright, lemony frankincense and bergamot blend over a rugged ambergris.  I suspect that the ambergris tincture was made from black ambergris, because there is a softly dung-like aspect to it at first that might seem fecal to some.  It might even have been boosted by a drop of civet.  But mostly this smells like pure ambergris tincture to me, made from a non-white grade of ambergris.

 

Later, the blend develops into a natural, warm marine aroma, with tinges of low tide and earthy, raw tobacco to remind us of its origin.  Ambre du Soleil is an excellent example of the depth that natural ambergris can add to a blend, serving as an amplifying glass for all the other elements in the mix.

 

 

 

Ehsas (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A musky, salty ambergris-based fragrance with more than a lingering air of cheap men’s sports cologne.  Ehas opens with a citrus and white musk combination that is about as comfortable as someone squirting lemon juice into your eye.

 

The ambergris note adds a dirty, musky salinity, and there are some nice green florals in the mix, but really, nothing in this mukhallat distinguishes it beyond the standard Iso E Super- or Ambroxan-powered sports dross so popular in modern masculine perfumery.  If you like this sort of nose-singing rubbish, just buy Sauvage and be done with it.  No need to get fancy schmancy with an attar.

 

 

 

Encens Mythique d’Orient (Universal Perfumes & Cosmetics)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Encens Mythique d’Orient by Guerlain is a resinous ambergris fragrance with a bright rose and lots of aldehydes.  It is a rather complex fragrance, and not easy to dupe.  When worn on its own, the dupe captures the general feel of the scent quite well, but worn side by side with the original, some vital differences emerge.

 

The first difference is texture.  The steam-pressed hiss of aldehydes of the original is missing in the dupe, leading to a slightly flattened effect, as if all the air had been let out of the tires.  The original has incredible body and lift, with salty ambergris adding a rough, animalic sparkle.  The dupe lacks the radiance central to the character of the real Encens Mythique d’Orient and therefore most of the point.

 

The other main difference is in the quality of the rose.  Whereas the original uses a sharp Ta’if rose – dry, peppery, and neon pink – the dupe uses an ordinary Turkish rose synth and tries to beef it up by adding a jumble of mint, blackberry, and raspberry notes, a discordant mishmash that doesn’t feature at all in the original.  The dupe is also less finely soapy-musky than the original, veering off instead into berry jam territory.

 

Sometimes, the most important question to ask of dupes is whether someone would mistake it as the original when smelled in isolation, or in the wild.  I think that the dupe is recognizable – just about – as Encens Mythique d’Orient.  But it can only sustain the illusion for a short time.  In the end, the dupe morphs into a blackberry musk with a curiously waxy edge, reminiscent of Mûre et Musc by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  If you are fond of this particular L’Artisan Parfumeur scent, then you will probably like this dupe for what it is, rather than caring about what it is not.  Those specifically in search of Encens Mythique d’Orient, however – well, this ain’t it.  

 

 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

Source of samples: I purchased samples from Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Al Haramain, Amouage, Agarscents Bazaar, and Universal Perfumes and Cosmetics. The samples from Abdul Samad al Qurashi and Sultan Pasha were sent to me free of charge either by the brand or a distributor. The sample from Gulab Singh Johrimal was sent to me by a Basenotes friend.

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Ambergris Attars & CPOs Cult of Raw Materials Mukhallats Single note exploration The Attar Guide

The Attar Guide: Ambergris – A Primer

28th February 2022

What is Ambergris?

 

There is a common belief that ambergris is whale vomit​.  But it is now largely believed to be a waste product from the small intestine of the sperm whale that is excreted from the anus along with its poo.

 
Based on best available evidence, here is how ambergris is thought to be formed:


The sperm whale (a massive mammal) will typically eat up to a ton of squid and other sea creatures a day.   The squid beaks, pens, and other indigestible detritus will build up in one of the whale’s four stomachs until it becomes an irritant, whereupon the whale will vomit most of it up.  However, some of these beaks and indigestible materials pass through to the gastrointestinal tract.

Once in the gastrointestinal tract, the mass that will later become ambergris begins to form around the squid beaks and other detritus.   Because the intestinal tract is really only designed to hold liquid feces and slurry, the whale’s body produces a soft, waxy material to wrap around the beaks and protect the tract from any sharp edges.


This material is thought to be made up of a mixture of ambrein – a fatty cholesterol-type material responsible for the odor of ambergris, bile duct excretions (epicoprostanol), gut effluvia, and liquid feces, which build up to form a solid lump of material called a coprolith.   Over time, the pressure from liquid feces hitting this solid lump of hard material increases, finally propelling the ambergris to be excreted along with the (normal) liquid slurry.

 

That is, if the whale is large enough.  In some cases, smaller whales are unable to pass the ambergris, so the mass continues to build until it tears the rectum, causing the whale to die and the ambergris to be released into the ocean.

 

In other words, ambergris is the result of either a massive poo or a violent death caused by a massive poo.

 

 

It takes time (and seawater) to make good ambergris


When ambergris is freshly excreted, it is soft, black, and dung-like in both shape and odor.   In its fresh state, it is practically useless as a perfumery ingredient.

 

Ambergris bobs around in the open ocean for anywhere between ten to twenty years before washing ashore.  During this time, it is bleached into its familiar grey-white appearance.  The seawater effectively cures and weathers the ambergris, turning it into the hard, waxy substance so prized in perfumery.  Washed ashore, it will often bake and cure further under the sun, taking on the mineralic smell of the sand or stones with which it mixes.

 

 

Amber ≠ Ambergris


There is some confusion over the terms amber and ambergris – and this confusion dates all the way back to the Middle Ages.  The word amber, which comes from the Persiatic word anbar, was the word used in Middle English (Anglo-Saxon language) to describe ambergris.  But simultaneously, the word amber evolved in the Romance languages (Latin, French) to mean amber resin – specifically the hard, yellow tree resin that was washing ashore along the Baltic coast at the same time.  Since both ambergris and the amber resin were both egg-sized lumps of material washing up on beaches, it is easy to see why people confused amber with ambergris.

The people of the Middle Ages attempted to cut down on confusion by using color theory to distinguish amber from ambergris.   Hence, amber resin was originally known as ambre jaune (yellow amber) and ambergris as, well, ambre gris (grey amber), thus-called because of its greyish-whitish cast.   However, this only perpetuated the myth that amber and ambergris originated from the same source, differing only in color.  


Of course, nowadays everyone understands that ambergris and amber are not from the same family.  Here are the main points of comparison:



  • Ambergris is of animal origin (a sperm whale); amber is of plant origin (a Baltic pine tree).
  • Ambergris has a low burning point (a heated needle passes through it easily); amber has a high burning point (200C+)
  • Ambergris is porous, opaque, waxy, lighter than water (it floats); amber is hard, transparent, and heavier than water (it sinks)
  • Ambergris can be used directly in perfumery through tincturing; amber resin is not used directly in perfumery because it does not produce its own essential oil*


*There is a fossilized amber resin oil produced through the process of dry distillation, whereby the amber resin is burned, producing a smoky, tarry-smelling oil.   However, this is not an essential oil of amber, but a by-product of burning.  Fossilized amber oil, when used in a perfume composition, produces a smoky, balsamic effect, and must be dosed very carefully in order not to overwhelm the other notes.  It is sometimes called black amber, and is used in some niche perfumes, such as Black Gemstone (Stephane Humbert Lucas).


Amber in modern perfumery is therefore a fantasy composition – an accord – rather than an actual material.  It is an abstract idea of warm, honeyed, sweet, and resinous flavors rendered by a combination of labdanum (rockrose extract), vanilla, benzoin, and sometimes copal resin.  Ambergris itself may have been once used in the place of labdanum, but that is certainly no longer the case.   If you are curious to know more about amber, the accord, and the fragrances that feature it, then there is no better resource than the amazing series on amber by Kafkaesque here and here.

 


The Legality of Ambergris

 


In most countries, it is perfectly legal to buy and sell ambergris.


CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is the international body that governs, among other things, the trade and use of ambergris.  Since 2005, CITES has agreed that ambergris is a ‘found’ material equivalent to flotsam or biological waste like urine and feces, and therefore it is not illegal or unethical to buy and sell lumps of ambergris that wash up on the shore.

However, CITES is not a government and cannot make laws: it is an international agreement to which states sign up voluntarily.  That means that signatory countries can choose to enact national laws that adhere to the CITES framework…or not.  Either way, a national law made by a government will always supersede the authority of the CITES agreement.


So while it is currently perfectly legal to salvage and sell lumps of ambergris that you find on a beach in the European Union, the UK, and New Zealand, it is illegal in Australia, where it is strictly considered to be a whale product and therefore protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999.

 

In the US, the legal situation is a little less clear cut.  Sperm whales are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which technically means it is illegal for anyone to sell, trade, buy, or otherwise profit from ambergris (because it is a by-product of an endangered species).


However, enforcement of this act is lax in America, and natural perfumers buy and use natural ambergris in their perfumes without fear of indictment by the Federal authorities.  The general line of thought in America is that since ambergris is a found, salvaged item like driftwood or other beach detritus, and not the product of hunting or cruelty to the whale by a human, then it’s perfectly ok to sell, buy, and use it.


In other words, American authorities basically agree with the CITES view of ambergris but just haven’t put it into writing yet.

 

 

The ethics of ambergris

 

 

The consensus is that while beach-cast ambergris is fine, ambergris hacked out of a whale’s gut is not.  However, in the case of Middle-Eastern attar perfumery, there is more cultural tolerance for animal-derived substances and therefore, buyers for the large attar companies don’t seem as bound by CITES conventions or ethics as buyers in the West.

 

For example, when a thirty-ton male sperm whale washed up dead on a beach in Holland in early 2013, with eighty-three kilograms of ambergris lodged in its rectum, the ecological NGO Ecomare oversaw the process of dissecting the dead whale and the Dutch Government oversaw the selling off of the ambergris.  The largest portion of this fresh, black ambergris was bought by Ajmal, the Indian attar company that sells to a primarily Middle-Eastern market.

 

This case shows that there is an appetite even for the freshest, stinkiest grades of ambergris in the Middle-East.  It also demonstrates that some buyers for the Middle-Eastern attar companies do not mind trawling in the grey area between hacked-out and beach-cast ambergris.

 

By the way, ambergris is not ‘hunted’.  Ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of a measly one percent of male sperm whales.  That translates to one in a hundred sperm whales.  In other words, it doesn’t really make sense for hunters to go out and try to kill sperm whales to harvest their ambergris because the sheer odds of finding it make it a losing proposition.  Therefore, the incidence of killing sperm whales purely for their ambergris is low to non-existent.

 

 

The use of ambergris in perfumery

 

 

Ambergris is used in perfumery in two main ways: as a fixative and as a prime component of the perfume’s aroma.  Ambergris is a superlative fixative that gives depth and a halo-like glow to the finished perfume.  It deepens the impact of all the other notes in a composition and extends the perfume’s tenacity on skin.  Think of it like blowing on a fading fire, one’s breath reviving the hot red brilliance of the coals.  If ambergris is used as a fixative in the base of a commercially-produced perfume and is not the main note being emphasized, then a synthetic ambergris replacer is normally used in the place of real ambergris.

 

Ambroxide, sold under the trade names of Ambroxan and Cetalox, is a synthesized material that is almost identical in chemical make-up to ambrein, the fatty, cholesterol-like component of ambergris responsible for its odor.  Ambroxide mimics the fixative properties of ambergris perfectly, is cheap to use, of consistent, replicable quality, and very easy to scale up for mass production.  It makes no sense to use real ambergris if all you need it for is its fixative properties deep down in the basenotes.

 

The other use of ambergris in perfumery is as the main fragrant component of a finished perfume, meaning that the perfume will smell quite strongly of ambergris itself.  Ambergris has a very complex scent profile which depends on the type and grade used, but it is not very easy to define.  Some perfumes focus on capturing the more tangible facets of ambergris scent profile, such as salty, marine, sweet, tobacco-like, earthy, or even dusty vanilla-paper facets.  Often, perfumes with real ambergris have a funky, civet-like character that some compare to halitosis.  As a rule of thumb, real ambergris is used mostly by natural perfumers, small indie perfumers, and attar makers.  Beyond a certain price point, most of the attars and mukhallats described in the Attar Guide use real ambergris rather than synthetics.

 

 

 

What does ambergris smell like?

 

 

The sea.  Salt.  A harbor at low tide.  Poo.  Earth.  Tobacco.  Rocks.  Musk.  A freshly mucked-out stable.  Vanilla milk.  Old newspaper.  Ambergris can smell like any and all of these things, depending on the grade (quality) of ambergris, the age of the piece, and the specific micro-environmental conditions surrounding its formation.  Each piece of ambergris smells different from the next, but its aroma and quality are classified as one of three categories, as follows:

 

 

Black Ambergris:  The freshest pieces of ambergris are blackish in color, quite soft, and dung-like.  Fresh black ambergris smells quite strongly of horse manure mixed with straw and marine bilge.  If you have ever mucked out a horse’s stable, then you will be familiar with this smell – it is pungent, fecal, but also warm and horsey.  It is not unpleasant, but it is animalic.  These lower grades of ambergris have not been cured as long in the ocean and therefore retain their original poo-like shape, color, and smell.  While the very soft specimens are useless to perfumers, there is great demand in the Arab world for the harder lumps of ‘fresh’ ambergris, which produce a animalistic undertone in attars and blends.

 

 

Grey (Standard) Ambergris:  Aged for a good many years in the ocean, grey ambergris has an ashy grey or brownish color, and is hard.  The greatest range of aromas seems to be present within this grade of ambergris, with specimens smelling alternately of tobacco, old (yellowing) newspapers, vanilla, bad breath, marine silt, damp earth, harbors at low tide, seaweed, hay, horsehair, books, and warm salt.  The initial aroma is warm, salty, and halitosis-like.  Once the nose adjusts to the slight fecal or bad breath tonalities, the aroma is very pleasant – rich, round, and earthy, with an undercurrent of clean seawater.

 

 

White Ambergris:  The highest grade of ambergris is, as the name suggests, white.  There is little to no actual aroma clinging to the actual specimens besides a hint of sweet dust, dried salt, and something mineralic.  In fact, white ambergris smells like anything that’s lain on a beach under the sun for a while, meaning dusty, mineralic, faded, and pleasantly ‘au plein air’.  It has a silvery driftwood feel, bleached of all color and animal tendencies.  It smells light, bright, clear, and kind of sweet.  It is actually a very difficult smell to define other than a subtle salty-sweet ozone aroma that drifts in and out of the outer field of one’s perception.  White ambergris is the type prized for its fixative abilities and for its power to magnify all the other notes without imposing its own character on the composition.  Smelled on its own, it is a very difficult aroma for the human nose to define.

 

N.B. These descriptions come from personal experience with smelling many different specimens of beach-cast ambergris, kindly facilitated by face-to-face meetings with the owner of Celtic Ambergris in Kilkee, County Clare, in the West of Ireland.

 

 

Ambergris in Attar Perfumery

 

 

Oil perfumes on the cheaper end of the scale likely use the same Ambroxan or Cetalox used in most Western commercial perfumes.  But the more expensive, luxurious mukhallats that list ambergris as a note will contain real ambergris.  Culturally speaking, there is a long-held reverence in the Middle East for ambergris both in perfumery and for other, more obscure uses, like fattening up a thin child.

 

Cultural preferences also come into play when it comes to the selection and buying of pieces of ambergris.  The Middle Eastern customer is much keener than the average Westerner on animalic notes in their perfumes, exhibiting a healthy appetite for the darker, funkier forms of ambergris, oud, and musks.  Therefore, even the fresher specimens of ambergris are appreciated and used in Middle-Eastern perfumery.

 

Anyone interested in ambergris might want to order samples of some single-focus ambergris oils and tinctures, in order to establish a baseline for how ambergris smells in isolation.  For a high-quality tincture, order a few drops from La Via de Profumo. Dominique Dubrana, or Abdes Salaam Attar as he is more commonly known, is a highly reputable and respected perfumer that makes and sells his own tinctures, attars, and spray perfumes using only natural ingredients.

 

 

Note: This article is an updated and attenuated version of an article originally written for Basenotes in 2019 (here). It is reprinted with the kind permission of Basenotes’ owner, Grant Osborne.  

 

Photos: All photos in this post were taken by me and should therefore only be reproduced with my permission. 

 

About Me:  A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes.  (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world).  Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery.   Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud.  But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay.  In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.

 

 

Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized.  But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button.  Thank you! 

 

Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.

Ambergris Ambrette House Exploration Independent Perfumery Iris Leather Oud Review Smoke Vetiver

Neandertal: Them, Us, Light, Dark

8th March 2021

The indie perfume brand Neandertal boasts some of the most achingly cool bottles I’ve ever seen, one of the hottest talents on the indie perfumery scene (Euan McCall), and several glowing Luca Turin reviews – and yet, surprisingly little hype. I’m going to hazard a guess that, for some, ‘achingly cool’ + bottles that look like ice sculptures = intimidating.

That includes me, by the way. I am the least cool person in the room at any given time, so it’s likely I’d have continued to ignore Neandertal to infinity and beyond were it not for the fact that I recently purchased some samples of Euan McCall’s work (for his eponymous brand) and wanted to compare/contrast against his work for another brand to get a fuller picture of his style. When a perfume contact who does some PR for Neandertal (Brooke) offered to send me samples of the line, I figured it was kismet. 

I’m really glad I got to smell these. All of them were interesting – unique even – and none of them were the paint-by-numbers type of jobbie we’ve come to expect from the more upmarket niche brands. One was marred by a heavy hand with nose-burning aromachems, but even that was redeemed by a beautiful and unusual central section. Matching the bottles, the perfumes draw on the jolie laide nature of raw, elemental things – metal, earth, leather, salt. The effect is often jarring, and sometimes (one senses accidentally rather than deliberately) even pleasant. But we all need a little intellectual roughage in our diets, don’t we? 

 

Them

 

Oh, the grappa and Fairy washing up liquid sting of pure orris root tincture! I love how, when used in more generous quantities than the standard dribble tapped out with a fingernail into niche perfumes to justify an obscene price tag (Floretiiiiinnnnne irisssssss), this buttery but bleachy rhizome always manages to bring in the desaturated cool grey-pink colour canvas of Scandinavia – even if what the perfumer had been going for was Italian sunshine or Russian leather. Orris will out. Luckily, we have a Northern European perfumer (Euan McCall, a Scot) going for a cool, foggy interpretation of orris root, so the Scandi colour palette works just fine.

 

Orris root is an interesting material because, to me, it is a mixture of high and low, which means that it smells in equal parts like a fine leather glove and like the rooty sting of moonshine brewed by a Polish potato farmer. An elevated root cellar smell. Part of the reason that Them works because the perfumer understands this element of the material and surrounds it with other high-low accents. So, we have a green, scratchy salt note rubbing up against an ambrette material that feels luxuriously cloudy (a drop of Pernod in water), and a vaporous leather note slowly losing its initially screechy, toxic edge as it is folded into a much finer, softer ‘cuir’ along the same lines as Cuir d’Ange (Hermès) or Cuir X (La Parfumerie Moderne).  

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It is also an outdoors-to-indoors kind of perfume. It starts in the cool, foggy outdoors (Iris Silver Mist territory even) before slowly switching the scene to a posh art gallery full of spot-lit ‘found art’ sourced from nature, like long, silvery hunks of hollowed-out driftwood, polished stone, dried seaweed, salt, leather – the type of beach-cast objets that a collector might pay thousands for. There’s an awkward moment in the transition that smells a little bit sweaty or BO-ish, but it’s brief enough for me to pass it off as my imagination (or perhaps a momentary concentration of something evil in the iris material used).   The small flashes of furry warmth and leather underbelly briefly bring to mind Slumberhouse Sibet, but no, Them is green, salty, and almost aqueous in a way Sibet is not.  

 

  

Us

 

Us is one of those atmospheric indie scents that are more like exhibitions than perfume – experiments not really designed to survive beyond the walls of the lab but to be held up, admired, and put back down again. It smells like boot polish, tanning agents, and the soot-streaked insides of a kipper smoking house. And also like wet eucalyptus branches thrown onto an open fire in a sauna. While I admire the phantasmagoric summoning of the La Brea tar pits, I’m not sure that something this extreme is for wearing.

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In the drydown, it calms down enough for me to spot the relationship to the hoary old seagrass vetiver (burnt, whiskey-ish) of Vetiver by Annick Goutal Vetiver or Arso by Profumum, but I would rather wear the Goutal than a version that’s been amped up by a factor of ten. I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of stuff anymore. If you’re just getting into niche or indie, however, and you are chasing down all the ‘burning tire’ scent experiences you can find, then Us is gripping stuff indeed.

 

 

Light

 

Light is a jarring but ultimately thought-provoking fragrance. There is an opening blast of some aromachemical so vile and toxic I can feel it at the back of my throat, and for a moment or two, before this thing rights itself, I have to fight the urge to scrub it off my skin. I suspect a noxious brew of Ambroxan and the milky-metallic shriek of violet leaf, with a pronounced ‘curdled milk’ effect.

 

However – and you know that the ‘however’ has to be a good one in order for me to get past the teenage body spray thing at the start – Light surprises me by settling into a weird but interesting accord that I can only describe as a tart but creamy ‘rhubarb and custard’ floral that gets me in its headlights and refuses to let go. Yes, I understand that nothing in the notes list would explain this. Yes, it is possible that I’m going crazy. I have worn Light several times now, and each time I grimace my way through the opening (hairspray! licked metal spoons! teenager deo!) and each time I wind up in the rhubarb and custard place.

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And if it only stayed there, I would be enthusiastic. However, after an hour or two, the scent begins a slow fade into a chemical marshmallow drydown with an unpleasantly dusty ‘wheaten’ undertone – a sort of stale, chocolate-less smores accord – which reminds me a bit of that Godawful Rouge Smoking by Parfums BDK (which is cherry cough medicine + pleather + bubblegum + stale, wheat-dusted marshmallow) and of Sangre Dulce by Strangers Parfumerie, which is actually pretty good. I’m not keen on this indie ‘protein bar’ accord, to be honest, so this is a mark against it. But that weird salty-floral-creamy rhubarby midsection – oh man. What I’d do for a flanker that excerpted that part.

 

 

Dark

 

 

Aptly named, Dark is one of those oily, industrial-smelling concoctions that get you thinking both of (a) the fuel spills, rubber, tarpaulin, and black oil of a car repair shop, and (b) the oily black infestation at the cire of a freshly-felled agarwood tree, i.e., the natural and unnatural intertwined so densely that one is undistinguishable from the other. It smells dank and oddly savory (umami), perhaps due to the seaweed note, which is more reminiscent of miso paste than of salt. Unlike Light, Dark is, well, the smell of closed-up spaces, of rot, of time v. infection.

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Though unusual, its grungy industrial bent is not entirely unique – there are elements of what I am smelling here in both Nooud by Baruti and Black No. 1 by House of Matriarch. But in the drydown, Dark takes a very different turn, and this is where the paths diverge. The scent sees itself out on a long tail of pure, blinding metal. You know the metallic scent of orange juice that’s been spilled and left to dry? This is precisely that, minus any scent of orange. I don’t know if this is saffron, coriander, rose oxide, violet leaf, or some other metallic material, but the flash of metal provides a link to Light that I find interesting. Dark mixed with Light, by the way, provides for a compelling experience – the tart, metallic rhubarb and (salted) custard sparks against the oily, savory dankness of Dark’s oudy leather to yield a scent that feels as bright as an over-exposed photo and as grungy as mold.  

 

 

Source of samples: Samples of the Neanderthal line were kindly sent to me by Brooke, who does some PR on social media for the brand. I disclose where my samples came from so that you (the reader) can decide for yourself whether my review is unbiased or not.

 

Cover Image: Photo by Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

Ambergris Aromatic Collection Cult of Raw Materials House Exploration Independent Perfumery Review

Les Indémodables Part I: Vanille Havane, Oriental Velours, Musc des Sables, and Cuir de Chine

15th February 2021

 

 

Vanille Havane

 

Vanille Havane is an undeniably good smell. How could it not be? It is basically a Greatest Hits tour of some of the most feelgood smells in modern niche perfumery, from the boozy sparkle of the vanilla-benzoin Eau des Missions and rough pain d’épices of Tobacco Vanille to the leathery black vanilla pod of Mona di Orio Vanille, the singed marshmallow of By the Fireplace, and the sticky, concentrated Coca Cola goodness of Tom Ford Noir Extreme (albeit dustier and more masculine than any of these). I am willing to overlook a perfume being slightly derivative as long as it smells great, and this one does. I’m particularly enamored of the far drydown, which smells like brown sugar and book paper that’s been toasted in a low oven.       

 

A couple of things make me think less of it, though. First, sniffed up close, near to the skin, you can smell each one the blocky components of the perfume separately, from the intrinsic density of natural absolutes like tobacco absolute to the rather scratchy synthetic wood aromachemical they’ve chosen for radiance (this disappears fast, to be fair). In the air, these elements come together in a synergistic way and it smells fantastic, but on the skin, it’s like catching your father in his Santa suit putting presents under the tree when you were seven.

 

Second, Vanille Havane doesn’t take me on a journey. The older I get, the more I need my perfumes to be more than a good smell – they need to stir my imagination or feeling so that I feel less dead inside. Just kidding. But what I mean is that a good perfume – to me – is more than a hodge-podge of good-smelling materials thrown together for effect. And Vanille Havane, good-smelling as it is, is a hodge-podge.

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Lastly, there is a rough and slightly cheap ‘indie oil’ edge to this perfume that allows me to mentally rank it alongside several of the Kerosene perfumes, especially Blackmail and Broken Theories, with a little of the excellent (and chewy) Vanilla Pipe Tobacco by Solstice Scents thrown in for good measure. To be clear, I’m really fond of that indie oil edge as long as the perfume in question remains at a price point that doesn’t make me wish I’d ponied up the extra €100 it would take to buy a bottle of Mona di Orio’s Vanille.

 

 

Oriental Velours

 

Had I only smelled Vanille Havane from Les Indémodables, I might have written the entire brand off as just another modern niche brand producing paint-by-numbers jobbies designed for niche snobs who want to smell esssspensssive rather than original. The whole nomenclature – Cuir de _, Musc des _, Rose de _ etc. didn’t help either, reminiscent as it is of the reductionist (and by now démodé) trend in modern niche perfumery of naming perfumes after raw materials or where the materials come from (as if they weren’t all from the same IFF, Symrise, Firmenich, or Givaudan catalogues), clumping two or three words together inelegantly as if anything over that was going to be audited by the taxman. Prime offenders in this include Affinescence, Essential Parfums, and about 70% of the Mizensir line up, none of which ever manage to smell like more than the sum of whatever went into the formula or succeed in stimulating my mind into anything other than performing a basic internal sorting into good-meh-bad.

 

Thankfully, several of the Les Indémodables perfumes challenged this perception and made me realize that there is a degree of thoughtfulness and design at work here. I’ve reviewed Oriental Velours here, but since then, whenever I’ve worn it, I’m reminded of how I (criminally) omitted to mention the slight camphoraceous effect of the minty evergreen effervescing against the myrrh, creating an astringent misty-velvety effect that I can almost taste on my tongue. The only perfume I can think of that does something similar is the magical Bohea Bohème by Mona di Orio. Witchy, whimsical, shady, and cool. I have a thing for perfumes that suck me into crawlspaces. Oriental Velours is the first perfume I’d suggest to anyone in two minds of this brand.

        

 

Musc Des Sables

 

 

Musc des Sables is the first sample of the Les Indémodables that I drained completely. It is just – how do I put this – fucking adorable. It’s as if someone took the plush toy friendliness of Helmut Lang EDP and the vintage powder puff of Teint de Neige and dunked it in a bath of condensed milk and fleur de sel caramel, and then wrapped it up in a pure white ermine fur, the likes of which have not been seen since the Childlike Empress emerged on her mother-of-pearl half shell to greet Atreyu in the Neverending Story.

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A translucent tres leches cake. Expensive Italian talcum powder. White kitty belly fur. Breastmilk after having downed ten doughnuts. I don’t know, man. I have no business smelling of anything this sublime. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything – there is a caramelized, biscuity undertone that reminds me of Muschio by Santa Maria Novella and the juxtaposition between childlike and sensual is very Helmut Lang-esque – but if I were to be tempted into buying any of the Les Indémodables, it would be this. And then I’d have to guilt-buy Oriental Velours when I realize that I’ve bypassed originality for  the equivalent of a weighted blanket yet again.

 

 

 

Cuir de Chine

 

 

This is an interesting one. At first spray, an explosion of apricot-scented shampoo bubbles and Galaxolide musks comes spilling out over me like I’m in one of those Herbal Essence ads, so I shuffle the index cards in my head until I find the slot where I’d file the sort of clean, fruity-soapy osmanthus tea thing that Jean-Claude Ellena would classify as ‘un parfum d’après midi’ and wish he’d thought of it while he was at Hermès (except, he did, and it’s called Osmanthe Yunnan).

 

But not so fast, lady! A surprisingly gamey leather accord quickly elbows its way past the pretty apricot, and lest we make any mistake about it, this is the pungent odor of raw leather rather than the smoothly-shaved and powdered pudenda of Tom Ford lore. For a while there – an hour tops – Cuir de Chine lurches between peach shampoo and grimy chaps until I feel like I’m Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (‘She’s my sister’ *Slap* ‘She’s my daughter’ *Slap* ‘She’s my sister…’ *Slap*). The scent eventually gentles itself, the pungency of the leather burning off into a soft suede accent that might be mistaken as a naturally occurring feature of osmanthus oil, whittling down into a tandem of equal parts suede and osmanthus (‘She’s my sister and my daughter’). I like Cuir de Chine a lot; it adds something new to the genre. I do wish it lasted longer, though (this is the case for most of the Les Indémodables line, by the way, apart from Vanille Havane and Chypre Azural).  

 

 

Source of Samples: I purchased the Les Indémodables sample set here.  

Cover Image: Photo by Jordan Plihal on Unsplash

Ambergris Balsamic Frankincense Green Incense Independent Perfumery Leather Review Smoke

Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes: Love in the Time of COVID

25th January 2021

I keep trying to sum up Spell 125 by Papillon Artisan Perfumes for myself in one of those snappy two-liners that Luca Turin excels in, but it is a testament to the perfume’s shape-shifty-ness that I can’t settle on just one. Some days, I think, hmm, definitely Limey Smoke, but then there’s also Ashy Frankincense, Foresty Green, followed later by Balsamic Salt, Sour Honey, and Chewy Leather. Spell 125 just feels like a scent that’s been put together in thin, crisp layers that peel off into the atmosphere, like smears of organic matter hissing on hot volcanic rock. It smells acid-bright – neon almost – but also dry, like a nubbin of frankincense whittled to ash.

 

Papillon perfumes run the gamut from pretty (Angélique) and sweetly comforting (Bengale Rouge) to dirty-sexy-money (Salome) but what connects them all is that deep richness of finish that some have called Guerlainesque. Spell 125 marks something of a departure in style. Though it is as seamlessly constructed as the rest, Spell 125 actually smells far more environmental than it does classically perfumey – a clutch of green resins, blackish gums, and saltwater dripping from trees in some primordial forest, immediately evaporating into smoky ether as they hit the hot minerals beneath.

 

In a way, Spell 125 smells almost more like a Tauer or a Sonoma Scent Studio (think Incense Pure) than a Papillon, in that it smells both funkily organic, i.e., ‘ripped from nature’, and preternaturally airy, a whole diorama of sky, forest, and wind filling your lungs as you draw breath.

 

Spell 125 starts out with the lemon-and-limeade fizz of Siberian pine, sluicing everything in an acid-green halo of antiseptic fluid that might feel a little challenging at first until you realize that we all need something this invigoratingly bright to disinfect our lives of the bullshit that is life under COVID-19. An earlier mod of Spell 125 was more confrontational in its piney-ness – almost saltily urinous – but the final version turns the pitch just right, so that it feels more darkly balsamic than high-toned, with just enough residual volatility to make you think of fingers in electric sockets and lime-scented soap and ion-charged air.

 

But anyway, though the pine certainly is first out the gate, you immediately sense a myriad of other layers shifting, separately, and lifting into place. Most notable is a tremendous frankincense material, which is at first slightly green and waxy-balsamic-raw but grows increasingly ashy and ‘burned out’ in feel, until finally, everything feels like it is coated in a thin layer of white ash (but one that is not, thankfully, acrid).

 

Counteracting the vegetal coolness of the incense is the creeping mammalian funk of ambergris, with its hints of saltwater, warm tar, and loose tobacco flakes in a paper pouch. This is soon joined by other similarly resinous, gauzy layers of organic matter misting up through the scaffolds – the honeyed spicy-sourness of opoponax, dried lime peel, and a lightly chewy leather dimension that I feel sure comes from labdanum. Spell 125 is never quite animalic – but there is the suggestion (just the merest hint) of something grimy or unclean lurking beneath the ashy-resinous brightness. A Barbour waxed jacket clinging to warm, clammy flesh.  

 

Spell 125 will be launched on the 7th July 2021, to mark the 7th anniversary of Papillon, closing the circle started by Papillon’s first fragrance, Anubis. The name is significant – Spell 125 describes the ceremony known as the “Weighing of the Heart” in The Book of the Dead (usually presided over by Anubis) where the deceased soul is asked to weigh their purity against their sins, before being led by Anubis before Osiris and their eternal reward. Incense and leather are the two accords that connect these perfumes, but they run in such opposite directions, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect the two. Anubis is a dark, incensey leather fueled by a jammy jasmine absolute that smells a bit like gasoline spilled on a forecourt; Spell 125 is a dry, effervescent incense that smells like a wash of smoky crystals in the air.  

 

I appreciate both, but Spell 125 is the one I feel in my bones, if you know what I mean. In the midst of the busiest time of the year for me, with multiple deadlines and lots of stress, coupled with a return to the ‘joys’ of home-schooling for what feels might be the next twenty years, Spell 125 has acted as a little talisman of calm ten times more powerful than Bach’s Rescue Remedy drops and yet not quite as numbing as Xanax. I find it to wear very lightly (more vellum than velvet in tensile weight) but it is also immensely durable, with no discernible sacrifice to naturalness (of feel) made to the chemical Gods of Longevidee.

 

Listen, I f***ing love it. I’d carry this stuff around with me in the pockets of my pants if I still wore pants and I would definitely wear it for yoga were I ever to find a yoga video on YouTube that wasn’t intensely irritating (what do these people mean by ‘breathe into your spine’?). But just because Spell 125 happens to be exactly my kind of thing these days doesn’t mean its ascetic, modern ‘spaciness’ will be for everyone. It is not a people-pleaser like Bengale Rouge, for example, and it might challenge those who’ve come to love Papillon for its richer, more classically-styled output. But if a fresh, diaphanous, almost airy-sparkly coniferous incense sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and you already love stuff like Zagorsk (Comme des Garcons), Incense Pure (Sonoma Scent Studio) and the hemlocky green amber of Woman (Ormonde Jayne), then Spell 125 by Papillon will likely be a safe bet.  

 

Source of Sample: Smuggled to me by Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes in (Mod A) a small box of chocolate shoes filled with salted caramel and then (Mod B – the final version) a Papillon t-shirt, size XL to fit my capacious boobage. 

 

Cover Image: Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash