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