Guerlain takes a rare foray into the oriental genre with one of its newest fragrances, Ambre Eternel. It’s an eau de parfum that was released earlier this year, joining Santal Royal as part of a new collection called Les Absolus d’Orient. Like Santal Royal (with which it shares some notes in common), Ambre Eternel is geared primarily towards the Middle Eastern market, and seems to have somewhat limited distribution. (It’s not listed on most of Guerlain’s websites except the Middle Eastern and French ones, but it is available in parts of Europe and at some high-end American department stores.)
On its Middle Eastern website, Guerlain describes Ambre Eternel and its notes as follows:
Guerlain House Perfumer Thierry Wasser drew inspiration from the treasures of the East to create Ambre Eternel, a powerful sillage that makes the ideal scent for men and women alike. The main ingredient in this amber accord is Ambergris, which gives Ambre Eternel its sensual, voluptuous character. The amber accord then unfolds, roused by the spicy facets of cardamom and coriander, before delicately melting into a blend of orange blossom absolute, leather and woody notes.
Top notes: Ambergris, spicy notes (coriandre, cinnamon, cardamom);
Heart notes: Orange Blossom, Ylang Ylang, fruity notes [peach, according to Fragrantica];
Base notes: woody notes, leather note, amber notes.
I think there are two ways of looking at Ambre Eternel, depending on one’s sensitivity to aromachemicals or even whether one can detect them to begin with. Someone who is either indifferent or anosmic to synthetics would probably find Ambre Eternel to be the leathery and more overtly ambered relative of Santal Royal, albeit with a very different opening that strongly resembles Dior‘s Cuir Cannage with its plush, floral iris-y, grey suede instead.
In this version, Ambre Eternel opens with soft, caramel-scented ambered goldenness streaking under a pearly grey sky filled with plush, fluffy clouds of floral iris. It smells like the clean suede of a very expensive handbag, and is imbued with a Guerlainade tonka-ish sweetness, then dusted with a veil of violet-like makeup powder. Quiet, muted whispers of indeterminate spices echo in the background, along with something nebulous that hints at orange blossom fruitiness. For the most part, though, 95% of the opening bouquet consists of plush, clean, Cuir Cannage-style, iris floral suede dusted with Guerlainade and streaked with a soft, warm, caramel-infused amber.
Slowly, over the next two hours, the amber-licked irisy suede gives way to a purely leather fragrance, one that is dark and significantly drier. Smoky, tarry leather seeps up from the base, followed by smoky darkness, smoky woods, and dry amber. They wipe out the floralcy, all vestiges of caramel sweetness, the Guerlainade, and the dots of fruitiness. This is the transition phase into Ambre Eternel’s main essence, a heart stage centered on black leather that is coated with amber, streaked with woodiness, then wrapped up with ribbons of incense smokiness. In the drydown, all the notes fuse into one, and Ambre Eternel becomes a blur of leathery, woody, smoky amber. Occasionally, whiffs of the amber’s caramel-scented sweetness pop up in the background, but this is generally a dry or drier interpretation of the note, and a more masculine bouquet. In the final hours, all that’s left is a wisp of dry, woody leatheriness .
That is the way that Ambre Eternel might appear to someone who isn’t attuned to aromachemicals or sensitive to them, but, unfortunately, I’m in a different boat, so I’d describe my experience quite differently. To me, Ambre Eternel brimmed with either Amber Xtreme, Ambermax, ISO E Super, or all the above, as well as raspy smoke, charred (guaiacol-driven) woods set on fire, and an immensely desiccated, tarry faux “leather.” For me, the loveliness of the Guerlainade-dusted iris suede in the opening was marred by ISO E which smelt, to me and on my skin, like chemical cleaners, acetone, and hospital antiseptic. The main accords gradually took on a harsh chemical smokiness, abrasive scratchiness, and blackened dryness to the point that my throat seized up an hour into Ambre Eternel’s development. After 90 minutes, I had shooting pains going through my right eye whenever I smelt my arm up close for too long. By the third hour, it hurt to swallow, my throat felt as though it were closing up, and I felt a little unwell.
The problem is not that Ambre Eternel has synthetics, because almost everything does these days. It’s that, to my nose, it contains some of the strongest ones in what feels like the largest quantities. My difficulty is not merely that I’ve disliked the smell of such materials for years now, writing about things like ISO E Super almost since the very start of this blog; it’s the fact that they can trigger a serious and very painful physical reaction in me.
Putting all of that aside, there were two things that surprised me about Ambre Eternel. First, the nature of the flowers, starting with the lovely, plush, Guerlainade-dusted iris suede in the opening. Guerlain doesn’t list iris as one of the notes, but it was there each and every time I tried the fragrance. In fact, it was the main focus of the opening bouquet, with the caramel-infused amber as a secondary element (perhaps a tertiary one behind the ISO E). In most of my tests, there was also a subtle violet nuance, an orris-style one that sometimes evoked lipstick, sometimes a mere powdery sweetness. But, once again, there was no mention of such a flower on Guerlain’s note list.
Even stranger was the fact that the flowers that actually are listed have little to no presence on my skin. The orange blossom was an elusive, fleeting, nebulous wisp in only one test, and didn’t show up in any of the others. The ylang-ylang didn’t appear even once.
I felt a little crazy and wondered if I’d accidentally received a mislabeled sample of a different fragrance until I remembered Luca Turin‘s Style Arabia review. There, he writes about the “grey” opening filled with iris and violet. He goes so far as to actually put iris as one of the fragrance’s three notes (along with vetiver which I never detected on my skin). Later, I saw that a number of Fragrantica commentators also experienced an iris-heavy opening, and two mentioned Cuir Cannage as well. I can’t explain why Guerlain doesn’t mention iris, orris/violets, or tonka on Ambre Eternel’s note list, but, in my opinion, they’re all in the fragrance.
The second surprise was the ghostly nature of the fragrance during its later stages. There were times from the 4th or 5th hour onwards when it almost seemed to thin out on my skin, only to return with leathery, smoky gusto a short time later. I’m rarely so fortunate as to be anosmic to ISO E or to any of the woody-amber synthetics (which often include some ISO E molecular compounds as well), but it does happen in very rare instances. To give just one example, 4160 Tuesday’s “The Sexiest Scent on the Planet. Ever. (IMHO).” What you have to understand about ISO E or the very super-charged synthetics is that their large molecules can block the nose’s smell receptors, sometimes resulting in a ghostly fragrance that comes and goes, or that is often more detectable from a distance (or after a break in sniffing) than up close. Sometimes, the result is either hyposmia (a reduced ability or temporary inability to smell a particular note) or total anosmia (no ability to detect a note).
Here, Ambre Eternel never faded out or disappeared completely, but it occasionally turned into a quiet, elusive, almost thin creature that clung close to the skin before suddenly returning with full force and intensity. In one test, both the amber and leather accords engaged in the same sort of ghostly dance that ISO E can do, disappearing for brief intervals back and forth, leaving in their absence a very dry, woody smokiness. In another test, though, the leather, amber, and woods disappeared completely for a few hours. In their place was an iris-y greyness infused with smokiness but, occasionally, there was only a sort of scented nothingness that is difficult to explain. This weirdness lasted roughly from the 5th to the 7th hour, but, just when I thought Ambre Eternel was about to die out, the amber, amber-woody, and smoky woody-leather accords came roaring back. I can only chalk it up to some sort of temporary hyposmia on my part.
Moving on, Ambre Eternel had good longevity, average to low projection, and initially big sillage. Using several generous smears equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, the fragrance typically opened with 3-4 inches of projection and about 6 inches of sillage. The latter grew to about 8 or 9 inches after 15 minutes, then dropped at the 90-minute mark to about 3-4 inches. Roughly 4.5 hours into its development, the projection hovered an inch above the skin, but the fragrance began to do the ghostly thing that I’ve described above. It also felt quite thin in body. It was, paradoxically, strong in its smoky harshness and wispy in its airiness. Ambre Eternel generally became a skin scent 5.5 hours into its development, and lasted between 10 and 11 hours, depending on test. That surprised me. As a general rule, my skin chemistry amplifies the reach and life of any fragrance that includes a hefty amount of powerful synthetics; most fragrances with Ambermax, Amber Xtreme, or their related kin can last 16-20 hours on me, sometimes more. In this case, I think the large molecules might given me hyposmia after 10 hours, blocking my nose’s ability to detect the scent. I don’t know.
On a slightly related side note, when I reread Luca Turin’s Ambre Eternel review a few days ago, I saw it had been amended due to a similar issue. There was an Editor’s Note at the end stating that Mr. Turin had written the original review when he’d mistakenly thought he’d recovered from a cold, but he ended up being “still hyposmic to the amber note, and as a result, Ambre Eternel smelled drier and woodier. The review has since been amended by Dr. Turin to reflect this.” The (amended?) text states that the drydown had “no chemical bones showing.” I don’t know if that was always there or if it’s a new addition. Personally, if you ask me, I think “chemical bones” (and the hyposmia that they can sometimes trigger) are a big reason why Mr. Turin originally found the scent to be drier, woodier, and not particularly ambered. It wasn’t merely a mistake about whether he’d fully recovered from his cold or not.
Regardless, the review as it currently stands reads, in large part, as follows:
Ambre Eternel does smell like an amber material (cistus resin, aka labdanum), but there is a lot more to it than that. In fact, the dry, gray topnote that rises before you like a tall, ghostly apparition coming up through a stage trapdoor seems mostly made up of iris and violets and a brilliantly conceived background touch of a Badedas-style camphoraceous ester. The iris here is not the bready, translucent material of recent Chanel releases. It is more akin to the solid synthetic accord of Lutens’ original Iris Silver Mist (Maurice Roucel, 1994). As the iris fades, the fragrance shifts to a warm woody-fruity-ambery accord and heads to a very clean drydown with no chemical bones showing. If I were to guess at the artistic intent of this fragrance, I would describe it as an attempt to do a modern Iris Gris (Fath, 1946), replacing the muted peachy glow of the original with the smooth matter-of-fact lighting of a sepia portrait. Very good indeed.
On Fragrantica, the reviews for Ambre Eternel are mixed. (So are the assessments of longevity and sillage.) What’s interesting is how the actual descriptions for the scent go all over the place. On the one hand, you have negative comments like: “it smells like human sweat on recycled cardboard;” “it smells awful and smells like vinegar;” or “it just smells awful on me – like dirty leather.” On the other, you have comments admiring the amber, the leather, the iris, the sweetness of the fruits, the incense, or all the above.
The positive reviews generally tend to be too long for me to quote to you in a way that would be coherent, but here are a few abbreviated blurbs to give you a general idea about people’s experiences and to serve as a counter-balance to my own:
- Very very very similar to Dior’s Cuir Cannage. If Cuir Cannage is an old lady’s leather bag, Ambre Eternal is the leather bag of a younger woman.. Its like the lighter and cleaner version of Cuir Cannage, with less longetivity and weaker sillage.
- Very plummy-peachy (and somewhat screechy), leathery, spicy, orange blossom nectar on the back drop of this animalic leather amberigis. [¶] It is intense, it is pungent, juicy at first and boy, this is a siren!! […][¶] While it’s darker older sibling, Royal Santal, is somewhat more wearable (for men), this one to me is definitely more feminine and just a bit too sickly sweet in the first few hours. […][¶] The dry down however is super nice and definitely worth waiting for (and rather manly).
- The opening is rather big. I immediately get the impression of sweet and warm amber radiating forth with fruity, floral and vanillic notes that round the scent off in the beginning. For a short while, I start to get the impression of gourmand notes coming forth, just as a dry aspect of amber starts entering the scene. […][¶] The next phase was rather dramatic. I got the impression of the tension created by the warm amber and the dry hot aspect of amber, like that of incense wafting out of a censer. […] The leather notes create an aura, and ambience around the scent. At this point, the scent is not so big, but settles to a warm-dry amber with a glow coming forth from ylang-ylang and orange blossom. […][¶] [The actual ambergris] comes forth at the end, surprisingly musky and sensual and very animalic. The drydown is leathery, ambery, powdery and smoky. [Emphasis to perfume names in the other comments has been added by me.]
On Basenotes, Ambre Eternel’s entry page has only two reviews at this time, and they are firmly split. Polar opposites, in fact. “Buzzlepuff” found Ambre Eternel to be “one of the finest ambers available,” while “Mr. Bon Vivant” said flatly, “Guerlain has a lot of gall sticking the name ‘Ambre’ on this bottle.” For him, Ambre Eternel was mostly a dry iris fragrance with “a slug of sharp woody-leathery synthetics” and a “bone dry” character. In fact, his experience seems a bit like my own. What interested me, though, is how their descriptions mirror the two interpretations of Ambre Eternel that I wrote in my test notes and at the start of this review. Not exactly, but close enough. For the purposes of thoroughness, here are their differing perspectives, starting with that of “Buzzlepuff”:
This is an all amber fragrance that glows and warms you from within. The amber is prominent up front and smells aged and deep with a full leather base that flows seamlessly from opening to the end. My initial impression was, “this is the best amber fragrance I’ve ever smelled.” After a full wearing I do think that it is one of the finest amber fragrances available. There is depth and richness. As it wears on you smell a peach/neroli mid note which becomes prominent too. For me the peach aroma removes the masculine nature or darkness and adds a sense of fashion and a feminine touch that gives an impression of a fur coat, lipstick, make-up powder dryness, cutting through cold winter air.
Compare that to “Mr. Bon Vivant” who doesn’t think this is an amber fragrance at all and who writes, in relevant part:
Seeing as Shalimar spawned practically the whole amber family – like some great olfactory Queen Victoria – Guerlain has a lot of gall sticking the name “Ambre” on this bottle.
Ambre Eternel opens with a dry iris burst taken from the defunct Parfum Initial. Guerlain adds a slug of sharp woody-leathery synthetics. Then they extend the accord with a bone dry white musk. Oh, and (after five days on the smelling strip) you get a smidgen of vanillin. No sumptuous vanilla bean, tonka, resins or other amber materials. There is no ambergris. There is no “ambre.” And the only thing “eternel” about this scent is its longevity.
This smells like a Guerlain perfume with all of the heart (and expense) extracted. I am sure it is aimed at a certain kind of consumer, one who should know better but nevertheless lets brand status dictate purchases. [snip] [Emphasis to perfume name added by me.]
As I said at the very start of this review, how you interpret or feel about Ambre Eternel may well depend on whether you like, dislike, or are indifferent to aromachemicals. If you can’t detect them or don’t care if you do, and if you are also a lover of both amber and leather, then you may really enjoy Ambre Eternel and should definitely try it for yourself. However, if you are attuned to aromachemicals and also dislike them, then I can’t see Ambre Eternel as being your thing. A handful of you may even have a bad physical reaction to it similar to what I experienced. A friend of mine did. So did a family member who was over one day in which I was testing the fragrance, sniffed my arm a few times, and got a headache not long after, followed by migraine, a sore throat, and stiffness to the back of the neck. This is hardly a typical experience for the average person, but it is one that can befall people with chemical sensitivities.
I’ve been as neutral, objective, or tactful as I could manage under the circumstances, and the effort is wearing thin, so I’ll end this review here and now.