Amber folded into “savage” leather against a backdrop of smoky darkness dotted with iris and aromatic lavender which eventually give way to streaks of frankincense and myrrh — that’s the essence of Ambre Sauvage, a new release from Annick Goutal. It’s a fragrance with echoes of other creations, from Goutal’s own Ambre Fetiche to MPG‘s Ambre Precieux, Andy Tauer‘s new Amber Flash, and even Unum‘s LAVS. Some of those are better fragrances, in my opinion, especially for the price.
Ambre Sauvage is an eau de parfum that was created by Isabelle Doyen and released last month as part of a new luxury trio called Les Absolus. Each fragrance in the collection pays tribute to a different note. Here, it’s obviously amber, specifically dark labdanum. The Annick Goutal website talks about how “Amber is not an ingredient that is harvested but a material that takes shape in our imagination,” and lists the fragrance’s notes as amber, vanilla, and iris. However, First in Fragrance has a more complete list:
Iris, Vanilla, Ambergris, Pink Pepper, Lavender, Woods, Suede Leather, Storax [styrax], Patchouly.
Ambre Sauvage opens on my skin with dark, labdanum amber dripping with leathery birch tar, smoky styrax, and a drop of lavender. It’s a strong, sweet, blackened bouquet that is smoky above all else, but there is enough of a brisk, aromatic freshness to remind me of Maitre Parfumeur‘s Ambre Precieux, one of my favorite comfort fragrances. There, MPG cut labdanum with benzoin and vanilla, then topped it off with myrtle and lavender. The similarity is not only small, but fleeting because Ambre Sauvage changes within minutes when the powerful smoke, tar, and leathery accords surge to the forefront, engulfing the labdanum and sending the minor flickers of lavender to the sidelines.
Those aren’t the only changes. Ambre Sauvage takes on a phenolic, woody quality that smells almost identical to the creosote tar used in Andy Tauer‘s fragrances, like the Amber Flash that I reviewed yesterday. In addition, Ambre Sauvage begins to waft an overt, pronounced streak of aromachemicals in the base: there is something extremely similar to the five-alarm forest fire aroma of guaiacol that I talked about with regard to Serge Lutens‘ Sidi Bel-Abbes. but there is also a separate woody-amber or amber-woody aromachemical as well. When I first tested Ambre Sauvage and only applied a small quantity of the fragrance, I was hit with the two sorts of intrusive, aggressively blackened woody smokiness even before the labdanum amber reached my nose.
The power of the smoky, leathery, woody blackness overwhelms not only the lavender but also the iris which appears minutes into Ambre Sauvage’s development. It’s a cool note that smells not only of orris butter, but also the flower itself. It’s slightly powdery, soft, and oddly breathy next to the hulking brutes beside her. It darts about like a firefly, sometimes more noticeable than the lavender in the background, sometimes less.
The cumulative effect reminds me a lot of a black hole on a Star Trek episode, like the one on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the vortex gulped up little objects, and then shot them out in either direction. 15 minutes into Ambre Sauvage’s development, the black hole swallows up the lavender to all effects and purposes, but belches out pink peppercorn berries to take its place. They’re pinpricks of gooey fruited sweetness amidst the vast, smoky, tarry, leathery space.
What about the amber, you may ask? Well, for the first 30 minutes, it feels more like a minor subset underneath or at the center of the thick haze. It smells vaguely of the dark toffee manifested by labdanum with a few drops of its root beer aroma mixed in, but that’s evident only when I sniff my arm up close and really focus. Short of that, all that’s evident is a generalized, darkened “amber” subsumed by smoke from styrax resin, birch tar leather, phenolic aromachemicals like creosote and/or guaiacol, and various woody-amber or amber-woody synthetics. By the end of the first hour, however, the amber is essentially folded into the blackness, an almost indivisible part and parcel of it.
At first, Ambre Sauvage’s rough, caustic, and aggressively raspy aroma constantly shifts back and forth between leather, smoke, and woody dryness as its main characteristic, but that also changes after 30 minutes. With every passing moment, the leather gains strength and forcefulness, lumbering like an aged, unwieldy tank onto center stage, and flattening the labdanum into a thin pancake beneath its wheels. In essence, the focus of the scent has gone from mere smokiness or woody smokiness to a more leathery sort.
It may be a technical detail, but it’s a significant one for two reasons. First, it makes Ambre Sauvage feel even more synthetic than Andy Tauer’s Amber Flash because the leather is an additional and powerful note that goes beyond the creosote or woody aspects of the Tauer. Second, the degree to which the leather dominates makes the new amber feel very different from Annick Goutal’s old Ambre Fetiche.
The two fragrances have a lot of overlap. Ambre Fetiche also contains labdanum, birch tar leather, iris, vanilla, styrax, resins, and incense, as well as an aromatic component (albeit this time from geranium). I applied smears of the concentrated parfum version of Ambre Fetiche on one arm next to a comparable amount of Ambre Sauvage, and the scent profiles varied quite a bit. (I used the parfum version because I think it’s closer in weight or strength to the new Sauvage than the EDP version.) Ambre Fetiche opens with waves of richly honeyed, toffee’d labdanum as the centerpiece atop a base of dark resins that feel only vaguely leathered. Various types of resinous smokiness are soft smudges that are layered in-between its ambered core, but they’re initially subtle. The iris is primarily a finishing touch in the drydown with the vanilla, rather than being a minor blip in the opening. In short, Ambre Fetiche essentially inverts or up-ends Ambre Sauvage’s note pyramid and places far more emphasis on the actual amber, rather than keeping it as a backdrop. Even when Ambre Fetiche’s leather seeps upwards from the base, it always feels more resinous and balsamic than purely tarry, and its smokiness is always a carefully calibrated amount that works harmoniously with the other elements.
In Ambre Sauvage, that is not the case. Regardless of whether you see the driving focus as smoky leather or leathery smoke (you can take your pick as to which one of the largely indivisible duo is the leader), the note has disproportionate heft vis-à-vis the other notes. It also feels overwhelmingly synthetic with a loud chemical clamour. That was not so overt with Ambre Fetiche, a fragrance whose opening EauMG described in her review as smelling “almost like window cleaner mixed with incense powder. It’s a chemical incense.” That chemical smoky blackness is at a whole new level here. As for the iris and aromatics, both fragrances have them to some degree, but they’re really negligible in the case of Ambre Sauvage. The iris is simply too delicate and fragile a note to withstand the domineering shadow cast by the smoky, bullying brutes lumbering all around her. Those brutes also turn the amber into a cowering, pitiful creature in a way that Ambre Fetiche never did on my skin. It’s really an accompanying secondary or tertiary player in what should have been called “Ombre Sauvage,” “Cuir Sauvage,” or “Fumée Sauvage,” in my opinion.
Ultimately, though, I suppose you could argue that it’s simply a question of degree because it’s not as though we’re comparing apples to kangaroos at the end of the day. And, on some levels, the real difference between the two Goutals lies in execution, balance, proportion, and price more than anything else. (More on the price later.)
Proportion or balance is why Ambre Sauvage turns into a closer approximation of another fragrance by the end of the second hour and the start of the third. In a nutshell, Ambre Sauvage becomes Andy Tauer‘s new Amber Flash, only with miniscule, muffled pops of aromatic lavender freshness in the background. Those pops largely die out 4.25 hours into Ambre Sauvage’s evolution, replaced by a strange, soapy, woody dustiness that smells like frankincense. It’s as though the Tauer had been supplemented by a Montale-like, neo-incense note. The effect is to turn Ambre Sauvage even drier. There is zero sweetness on my skin, particularly at the end of the 5th hour when the labdanum is virtually nonexistent.
The similarity to Amber Flash doesn’t last long, either. At the start of the 6th hour, the quasi-incense becomes quite prominent, supplementing the tarry, leathery smokiness with a different sort of smoke. It’s a soapy, resinous, woody tonality that is almost liturgical, but not purely so. It’s as though a frankincense resinoid or synthetic were mixed with clean musk and some sort of ISO E-like woody-amber aromachemical. The note feels like a rougher, more aggressively smoky, woody and synthetic cousin to the one in Unum‘s LAVS. Streaks of myrrh and sweet myrrh follow suit, adding to the thought of LAVS, though neither one is strong here as the main accord of tarry leather, tarry wood smoke, and frankincense. Those three remain the most powerful part of Ambre Sauvage for the next hour or two but, very slowly, the fragrance is starting to shift. Rather than having leather as the smoke’s main companion, the emphasis is veering towards smoky woods.
By the 8th hour, Ambre Sauvage essentially feels like a woody smoke (or smoky wood) fragrance. The charred logs are wrapped up with curlicues of frankincense and myrrh that ripple dusty, soapy, woody nuances, then set against a backdrop of amorphous, diffuse amber. This is simply not an amber-centric fragrance on my skin, but one that veers from smoky to leathery to leathery-smoke to smoky woody, always with intense dryness and blackness. I tried to take it as long as I could, but I gave up midway during the 9th hour and scrubbed it off.
On Fragrantica, there are a handful of reviews for Ambre Sauvage at this time, and they’re mixed in nature. One person calls describes the scent as “very animalic” leather with styrax. Several people bring up Ambre Fetiche, and find the new scent is really a more concentrated version without any significant difference. One poster wrote that the only real separation between the two was price, and added that he would never give up his concentrated Ambre Fetiche (the parfum version that I mentioned earlier) for the new release. For “DouceAmere,” the two fragrances differed in their middle and drydown phases, but Ambre Sauvage wasn’t as appealing:
The top notes are quite similar to Ambre Fetiche – you *know* this is an amber perfume. Unfortunately, after the promising beginning, it quietens considerably and becomes softer, airier and more vanillic.
Overall I would say that it is softer and less dense than AF, especially in the middle and drydown. While AF remains resinous and powerful throughout, Ambre Sauvage softens to a quiet, slightly powdery vanilla base. [¶] Ambre Sauvage is pleasant, but definitely not “sauvage”. I thought Ambre Fetiche was the superior amber, and at a lower price too.
I obviously had quite a different experience and did think the fragrance was “sauvage,” but only in terms of its synthetics, not in terms of its amber, and I agree with her that Ambre Fetiche is a superior fragrance that also has the benefit of a lower price. The new Ambre Sauvage costs $280, €195, or £166 for 75 ml of eau de parfum. The old Ambre Fetiche costs $182, €122, or £103 for a larger 100 ml bottle of eau de parfum, but can also be found at a sharp discount at a number of places for between $66 to $85. So that is 25 ml more of a comparable eau de parfum concentration (with far less synthetics) for a much lower price. If this sort of aggressively smoky thing is your cup of tea, you save even more money by buying Tauer’s Amber Flash for $63, though that is a much smaller bottle at 30 ml. Personally, I disliked that fragrance for much the same reasons as I disliked Ambre Sauvage, but at least it’s not highly priced.
In 2011, Annick Goutal was bought out by the Korean beauty company, Amore Pacific. I think Ambre Sauvage and “Les Absolus du Annick Goutal” is their attempt to create a “luxury” line to compete with all the other brands that are doing something similar, not to mention the new trend of luxury and super-luxury pricing in the niche world in general. I found neither the quality nor the distinctiveness to warrant Ambre Sauvage’s elevated price. Try them both, but I think Ambre Fetiche is a much better fragrance.