Do you love your amber with a shot of booze, or straight up? Do you want it as dark as night, its toffee’d chewiness beset by either tobacco, leather or incense, or would you prefer it to be so golden that it evokes James Bond’s Goldfinger girl? Have you sought an “amber” fragrance layered with the creamiest and silkiest vanilla, or do you prefer it accompanied by some combination of dry woods, spices, salty caramel, bitter expresso, chocolate, jammy roses, or aromatic herbs instead? Whatever the combination or your particular preferences, my hope is that there will an “amber” on this list of 50 fragrances to tempt you to explore further.
Before we get to the fragrances, it’s essential that I explain the framework for this list. It’s going to be long, so I ask for your patience, but I think it’s necessary in order for you to understand why things have been sorted as they have and the criteria that I used in doing so.
First, if you happen to stumble across this article in the months or years to come, it may not make much sense unless you read Part I first. Part I is critical because it explains the categories below, the definitions and types of “amber,” how each type smells, the occasional overlap between genres, and the difficulty in having cut-and-dry parameters. As I explained there, broad spectrum orientals that include some form of “amber” in the base are not the focus of this two-part series, only the ones where it’s the key focus. In other words, fragrances where the “amber” ingredient is emphasized above all else. It comes down to the balance and ratio of notes. If a fragrance is predominantly rose and patchouli against an ambered backdrop, then it’s not really an “amber” but falls into another fragrance family altogether. To qualify for this list, the amber must be the star of the show, the fundamental essence of the fragrance, or, at a minimum, the engine driving everything, no matter how many additional flourishes or ingredients there may be. If you read Part I, you’ll understand why certain fragrances fall within the categories that I’ve chosen, why others don’t qualify, and also the sheer number of variables that are involved both in understanding amber and in trying to find the type that best suits your personal tastes.
That brings me to my second point. The goal here is not to have a short list of the “Ten Best,” “My Favourite Ambers,” or the like. The goal is something else entirely: to be as comprehensive as I can be in order to give you the widest range of options and choices to find an amber that suits you. So I will try to cover all the ambers that I’ve tried in the various genres, even if a particular fragrance didn’t strike a chord with me.There are a few exceptions, though, as I’ll explain in a minute.
Third, in order to be as comprehensive as possible, I have divided things into roughly seven or eight categories. The Labdanum and Ambergris ones deal with pure, hardcore soliflores where the main note is so overwhelmingly dominant that any accompanying elements are either incidental or they exist merely to accentuate facets of the “amber.” After that, there are the “Labdanum Plus” and “Ambergris Plus,” where center stage is shared by some type of ambered material along with several other elements, but the fundamental core and essence of the fragrance is still all about the “amber” when its olfactory profile is considered as a whole. Towards the end, there is also a broad Mixed Genre section, a sort of catch-all category, if you will. I’ll explain further when we get to that part.
For all these categories, it comes down to the balance of notes, the ratios of the specific ingredients, and what really drives the scent. The demarcations are not always cut-and-dry, and there is sometimes an overlap (particularly between the “Plus” genres), so I’m forced to rely on a purely subjective, personal assessment of where a fragrance may fall on the spectrum. The balance or ratios may be different on your skin and you may view the fragrance differently, but I can only go by what appears to me on my skin and to my nose.
That brings me to my fourth point. As I emphasized in Part I, one cannot ignore the role of subjectivity in all this. It goes beyond the way that I’ve classified things, and it applies to whether something is included at all. As you’ll see below, I’ve listed fragrances that I didn’t love but that other people feel passionately about, and also mentioned a few that others seem to view as “ambers” even if I would classify them in an entirely different fragrance family. However, one has to draw a line somewhere in a post that covers 50 fragrances, particularly given the overall number of “ambers” that I’ve reviewed over the years, so I’ve excluded ones that I absolutely loathed, that I scrubbed, or that I felt were unbearable aromachemical bombs. That is my line in the sand.
Finally, I’ve tried to limit myself to fragrances currently on the market. However, since my goal is comprehensiveness, I’ve listed three discontinued fragrances that I thought were excellent representations of their genre or just great perfumes as a whole. My thought is that eBay offers options if someone is really eager to try the fragrance. I’ve checked the site and all three are currently available as decants, samples, or full bottles.
Thank you for bearing with all that background explanation so patiently, and I’m sorry it was so long. Onto the 50 fragrances now.
Profumum Roma Ambra Aurea: Ambra Aurea is not only the gold standard for ambergris fragrances, in my opinion, but also the only one I’ve encountered that feels like a hardcore soliflore. The unquestionable, solo star of the show is ambergris, ambergris, and then more ambergris, even though there are other elements like labdanum, incense, and myrrh included as well. They merely accentuate various innate facets of the key note which has a stunningly rich aroma that is simultaneously salty, sweet, sticky, extremely nutty, vegetal, slightly musky, beautifully golden, caramel-laced, and honeyed. Plumes of smoke and incense gradually arise at the edges, while an immensely toffee’d labdanum swirls through the ambergris. The drydown is centered primarily on labdanum-amber-incense-resins with waning levels of ambergris. Be that as it may, the entire vibe and feel of Ambra Aurea is about the ambergris, presented in its richest, densest, and most opulent form. I think it’s superb, the perfume equivalent of the tsars’ legendary Amber Room.
“AMBERGRIS PLUS” FRAGRANCES:
Profumum Fiore d’Ambra: Fiore d’Ambra is not as good as its big older brother, but it’s still a lovely fragrance and may work better for women who don’t want something as hardcore, musky, or heavy as Ambra Aurea. The amber note is more fluid and amorphous, not so clearly and strongly redolent of ambergris. I think there is ambergris in there, but it’s heavily diluted. In addition, it’s infused with floral (carnation?), cloves, cinnamon, incense, and resin elements for a bouquet that strongly evoked vintage Opium for me at one point. Gradually, soft woods (sandalwood?), vanilla, and vanillic powder join the mix as well. In its later stages, Fiore d’Ambra turns into a powdered, cinnamon, vanilla and caramel-scented amber. It’s not as exceptional, bold, compelling, or distinctive as Ambra Aurea, but it’s pretty and it may be more versatile in some ways.
Farmacia SS Annunziata Ambra Nera: Sexy, smoky, and snarling, Ambra Nera is a gritty, punk rock amber that is simply gorgeous. It is a compulsively sniffable parfum, and involves far more than the “black amber” in its name. Rich woods, spicy patchouli, incense, sticky balsamic resins, animalic warmth, and earthiness are all cocooned in musky ambergris in a way that feels like amber with an edge. While its essence can be over-simplified down to patchouli-woods-amber, the overall effect is like the Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, or Ramones version of ambergris. Sexy, and very cool, Ambra Nera is one of my favourites in this particular genre.
Dior Ambre Nuit: Ambre Nuit opens as a beautiful, potent, strong but weightless blend of sweet, salty, and liqueured ambergris layered with incense smoke, dry woods, and a touch of delicate roses that have been rendered a little fiery from peppers and a little sweet from patchouli. Gradually, Ambre Nuit turns into a gorgeous, smoky, sweet ambergris perfume laced with tendrils of dry woods and rich, sometimes chocolatey patchouli. I find the faintest, subtlest similarities to Chanel’s Coromandel, but the best summation for Ambre Nuit might be to call it the ambergris version of Mitzah, Dior’s fantastic (but sadly discontinued) labdanum fragrance.
Arabian Oud Kalemat & Kalemat Amber: Contrary to the company’s name, there is no oud in Kalemat which is a superb, super-rich, molten, and honey-slathered ambergris with a large sillage scent cloud, warmth, sweetness, cedary woods, incense smoke, and varying amounts of rose and muskiness as well. The concentrated Kalemat Amber oil may be even better and is magnificent in its richness, but it’s much softer on the skin. Arabian Oud has just opened a New York/Times Square location, but you can also find full bottles and samples of the EDP on eBay. (I’ve never seen samples of Kalemat Amber oil, alas.) I think both versions are fantastic, but which one suits you best will depend on what exactly you’re looking for. As a side note, layering the oil under other fragrances really adds to their richness and depth.
Tola Anbar: Anbar opens as a close copy of Kalemat (EDP). There are minor differences, though, like plums and fruitchouli. There is very little incense and no definite rose (though the feeling or suggestion is there, thanks to the fruit-chouli). Anbar also has much less honey, woodiness, and booziness. Eventually, Anbar turns into a gourmand “amber” dominated by immensely cloying caramel, shrieking vanilla, and extremely low-quality, synthetic oud that resembles something from Montale. As a whole, Anbar feels unbalanced and bombastic. I don’t find any of it remotely impressive, and I think it’s very over-priced. But it is technically an “amber” fragrance and might appeal to someone looking for a gourmand cousin to Kalemat, so I’ve put it on the list. (Grudgingly.)
Parfum d’Empire Ambre Russe: In its earliest phases, Ambre Russe is a bold, beautifully boozy, and complex scent that really stands out. It opens with a fizzy, sparkling, citrusy note that is intended to be “champagne,” but it’s quickly drowned out by another type of alcohol, one that is more cognac and rum on my skin than the “vodka” listed in the notes. The intense booziness is also imbued with: spices; honeyed sweetness; a touch of wonderfully browned, aged leather; and, finally, loads of rich ambergris. Soon, rum-soaked raisins, pipe tobacco, and something resembling smoky black tea arrive to join the mix as well. It’s fantastic but, all too soon, Ambre Russe turns into a simple, soft, and very sheer cinnamon-flecked, benzoin-ish amber laced with incense smoke. It basically stays that way until the end. It’s nice, but hardly as interesting or compelling. Plus, for me, the fragrance feels more like an eau de toilette than an eau de parfum. Others perceive Ambre Russe as a really rich scent, so it’s clearly an issue of skin and one’s personal spectrum. Either way, if you love boozy amber fragrances, this is absolutely one worth trying.
Roja Dove Amber Extrait: Amber Extrait is discontinued, but I’ve put it on the list because would it suit people who like a gourmand take on amber and it’s also easily found on eBay. I summed it up as Willy Wonka’s Amber, because it’s centered on a delicious chocolate-covered ambergris. If you are passionate about both ambergris and chocolate/cocoa notes, then this is worth sampling. (You can do so via eBay where the fragrance is still easy to find as a sample, decant, or full bottle.)
Histoires de Parfums Ambre 114: This is another fragrance that falls into overlapping genres. The start of Ambre 114 combines aromatic, lavender, fresh, and cologne elements with a musky, sweet, caramel-scented grey ambergris (much like MPG’s Ambre Precieux). Small amounts of benzoin and vanilla finish things off. Later, it turns into spiced ambergris with caraway and dry woods, then into a more generalised “amber” bouquet with as much benzoin and powdery tonka as ambergris. Drops of labdanum lurk around the edges, but this is a very golden, fluffy, sweet and powdery amber in its heart and drydown stages. I re-tested this one recently and couldn’t decide if it was an “Ambergris Plus” or a mixed genre, Amber-Benzoin-Tonka fragrance, but I eventually settled on the former. Either way, it feels wonderfully golden after its slightly cologne-like debut, and it frequently makes me think of the Goldfinger girl.
SHL 777 O Hira: When you want to mainline the labdanum form of amber and money is no object, this is for you. The Incredible Hulk of labdanum fragrances, its key note is deepened to an intense degree by a slew of the darkest, most balsamic resins (especially styrax and Tolu balsam) and, I suspect, ambergris, spices, dark musks, some tobacco, and possibly some patchouli as well. Chewy, dense, opulent, molten, intense, spicy, smoky, leathery, smooth, and with a naughty side, O Hira is a knockout that made me do a double-take from the very first moment that I sniffed it. It’s very sexy, in my opinion, and a personal favourite as well, but it’s also painfully expensive.
Tom Ford Amber Absolute & Sahara Noir: Both fragrances can be summed up as frankincense-infused labdanum amber, and both are extremely similar. I personally prefer Sahara Noir because I find it’s smoother, better balanced, less bombastic, and more refined than Amber Absolute, and its incense smoke never feels as high-pitched, but the latter has the benefit of being a sillage beast and an absolute powerhouse (for those who appreciate that style of perfumery). There is a weird situation with the availability of these two fragrances that I don’t pretend to understand. Amber Absolute was discontinued and Sahara Noir was ushered in to take its place. Then, Amber Absolute returned and its replacement vanished. Someone well-placed in the industry told me that Tom Ford brought Amber Absolute “out of the vault” for a limited time, which implies that it will return there at some point. Personally, I think that Estee Lauder or Tom Ford realised the mistake in discontinuing a fragrance as popular and beloved as AA and will probably keep it around, but who really knows? Sahara Noir was much cheaper in its retail price and I still think it’s worth considering if you can find a sample or bottle on eBay because it’s a smoother, more refined, better balanced, and less bombastic scent. Either way, whichever one is out there, it’s a torrent of rich, dark labdanum enveloped in frankincense smoke that is absolutely worth trying if you love the two main notes.
Dior Mitzah: Mitzah was the highlight of Dior’s Privée line for me and many others, and I’ll never understand the decision to discontinue it. It’s a sumptuous, rich but weightless labdanum fragrance that, despite the presence of rose, patchouli, spices, and incense, always feels like it’s driven by labdanum, labdanum, and more labdanum. The latter is toffee’d, honeyed, resinous, dry sweet, faintly musky, lightly spiced, and splattered with dollops of rum raisin. The rose is dark, velvety, and beefy; the patchouli is spicy, boozy, smoky, and faintly redolent of chocolate; and the waves of incense smoke that surround the scent from all sides are beautiful, the perfect finishing touch. Simply writing all this out makes me feel mournful at the loss of Mitzah. I have a large bottle which I hoard, but re-testing it last week made me think, once again, how Mitzah is among the best things Dior has ever made. Samples are still easily available on eBay, and I think it’s worth trying if you love labdanum. (The full bottles are extremely expensive, but they’re also huge in size at 8.4 oz/250 ml.)
Teo Cabanel‘s Barkhane: I summed Barkhane up as Mitzah’s big brother, and that’s largely the case. It opens like Mitzah on steroids: a molten lava flow of immensely balsamic, chewy, toffee’d labdanum. Smoke and spicy patchouli swirl all around. The end result is a visual of smoldering, spiced, slightly smoky blacks, browns, and reds that are edged in bronzed gold. The problem for me is that this mighty, mesmerizing, fantastic river of richness dries up with surprising speed. Some people have been luckier in terms of Barkhane’s development, its sillage, longevity, and power, but others have been in my boat. It’s probably a skin issue. Still, Barkhane is a current fragrance, nicely priced at $130, and samples are not hard to find, so it’s definitely worth testing if you love labdanum (especially if you adored Mitzah and are frustrated by its eBay prices).
Lubin Akkad: Mitzah’s other relative is Akkad. It opens with sugared orange that is slightly burnt, along with patchouli and leathery, nutty labdanum over a sheer hint of powder. Cardamom and frankincense soon follow to join the amber party. But, with astonishing speed, Akkad turns into a simple mix that is predominantly labdanum, frankincense, and patchouli. The latter (or its fusion with the labdanum) gave me a distinctly dirty, hippie, ’70s vibe that neither Mitzah nor Barkhane ever did. At the very end, it turns into a very light amber with a sort of caramel, butterscotch undertone and with a hint of vanilla. It’s much lighter and feels far less complex than Mitzah, but it lasts longer on my skin than Barkhane.
Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan: The original, referential labdanum amber of its kind, Ambre Sultan is too well-known to need much description. An opening of bitter herbs over labdanum transitions quickly (on my skin) into a hardcore labdanum soliflore coated in beeswax. It’s a very boozy, resinous labdanum with all its nutty, dirty, toffee’d, slightly honeyed, sticky, vaguely leathered undertones on display. I think there must be some patchouli and dry, faintly dusty cedar lurking in there as well. I enjoy Ambre Sultan, but I’m one of the weird handful of people who doesn’t find the fragrance to be rich or heavy at all, but very soft, thin, and light in weight. That may be a reformulation issue since Ambre Sultan was first released more than 20 years ago, in addition to a question of personal tastes. Some people struggle with the herbal “spice shop” opening, while a few women find it too masculine and dark in feel. Nevertheless, Ambre Sultan is one of the most celebrated and popular ambers around, and the gateway by which a lot of people entered the niche world, so it’s definitely an important fragrance in the genre.
Elisire Ambre Nomade: Ambre Nomade was inspired by Ambre Sultan, and I actually prefer it to the original. It’s a pure parfum that was created by Pierre Negrin, the nose behind such Amouage fragrances as Opus VII, Opus VIII, Interlude Man, and Journey Woman (co-done with Alberto Morillas). Ambre Nomade is significantly richer than Ambre Sultan, smoother, and deeper. The notes are slightly different as well. Like the lavender and rosemary that appear in the opening, sprinkled over a tsunami of really beautiful labdanum and cistus absolute. The latter are swirled through with dark toasted nuts, toffee and a cocoa-dusted chocolate, probably from patchouli. Later, a crisp, fresh apple joins the mix, followed by a candied, crystallized ginger and some vanilla. In its finish, it’s all about labdanum laced with incense. I think it’s fantastic from start to finish, and, despite all the other elements, the labdanum and cistus are always the stars of the show. As a side note, Elisire is no longer carried by OsswaldNYC and I can’t find any other retailers for the brand at this time. However, Ambre Nomade is directly available via the company’s website.
Diana Vreeland Extravagance Russe: This one starts with so much promise with an opening that is centered on sumptuously deep, bold, vibrant wave of boozy labdanum amber lashed with sticky, balsamic resins and smokiness. There are nutty undertones like toasted hazelnuts, layers of the rich toffee so characteristic of labdanum, and a boozy Bourbon vanilla. Streaks of muskiness run through it like golden veins, then a surprising hint of something chocolate-like, and a ghostly hint of something leathery. It’s absolutely wonderful, but all of it fizzles out with astonishing rapidity, turning into simple mix of labdanum amber and smoky resins. I’ll never get over the speed of the change, and how thin, wispy and skin-hugging the fragrance becomes. Personally, I doubt the bold, vibrant, and iconic Diana Vreeland would approve of such a humdrum, unoriginal bouquet but, if you’re a fan of hers, give it a test sniff.
“LABDANUM PLUS” FRAGRANCES:
Rania J. Ambre Loup: It’s probably cheating to include Ambre Loup on this list since I consider it to be primarily a tobacco fragrance, but I’m going to justify its inclusion on the grounds that it’s officially supposed to be an “amber” fragrance and that’s, in fact, the very word in its name. Plus, there are monumental amounts of labdanum and chewy resins at Ambre Loup’s core. I love Ambre Loup passionately and find it wholly narcotic, despite having been exhausted by its massive longevity and rather singular focus on my skin the first few times I tried it. But there is something about this fragrance, something that stayed with me, beckoning, enticing, and hard to forget. The more I wore it, the more obsessed I became with it, and the more I had to have a full bottle. I’m now considering the need for a second, back-up one because I frequently turn to Ambre Loup when I have a rare night to wear fragrances for myself. It’s a dark, rich, dense, spicy, smoky, lightly sweetened tobacco-amber bomb that always gets compliments. I think it skews more towards the tobacco than the amber, but someone I know thinks it smells like opium. (The drug, not the famous perfume.) Either way, it’s going to depend on individual skin chemistry. All I can say is that this was #1 on my list of personal favourites in 2015, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it.
Sultan Pasha Attars Pure Incense: Three times, I put Pure Incense into the Labdanum Soliflore category, and three times I moved it back here. I’ve now given up trying to determine the degree to which the gorgeous, head-turning, smoldering avalanche of labdanum — wafting its chewiest, darkest, most balsamic, smoky, toffee’d, leathery, nutty, tarry, musky, spicy, sweet, and tobacco’d facets — may share center stage with the various kinds of incense, led primarily by myrrh and joined later by frankincense. The bottom line is that this is the very epitome of resinous darkness, in the very best way possible, and it’s not a churchy, “High Mass” incense soliflore as its name might lead you to think. It was originally inspired by Norma Kamali’s famous but discontinued “Incense,” and is said to resemble it closely. Pure Incense is one of my favourite fragrances that I’ve tried in 2016, a powerhouse of intensity that is compellingly bold and like nothing else that is currently on the market. I think it skews quite masculine in feel, but I know some women who love it passionately. It’s really going to depend on your personal taste and style.
Sultan Pasha Resine Precieux: As the name makes clear, resins are front and center in this lovely attar which opens with swirling clouds of red, brown, gold, and black, as dark labdanum, cinnamon-scented benzoin, quietly smoky styrax, dry woods, myrrh, spicy Devil’s Dung, and lightly sweetened pipe tobacco swirl together in a dense ball of stickiness. That ball is then slathered with honeyed beeswax and ensconced within a musky, almost animalic haze of black ambergris. As a whole, this is a drier treatment of “amber” than you might expect from the notes. Its sweetness is counteracted by smoky and dry notes, in addition to being covered with a fine patina of dustiness, as though ancient woods had crumbled on the honeyed, balsamic, and almost fossilized resins. I love it, but I should warn you that, on some people, the Devil’s Dung spice (also known as Asafoetida or Hing) has turned “poopy.” It doesn’t on me or on others I know who love the scent, but it’s clearly a question of one’s skin and the notes it amplifies. So, it may be better to sample first.
Amouage Opus VI: Opus VI is driven by a super-charged labdanum with its darkest, muskiest, most leathery, animalic, and even dirty, almost goaty sides on full display, accentuated even further by dry, musky, amber aromachemicals (Ambrarum and Z11). Incense, patchouli, extremely dry woods, and spiciness round things off. The drydown is an amorphous amber with honey, beeswax and benzoin which creates a vague sense of nutty, caramel amber. That part is nice but I’m not keen on Opus VI as a whole, finding the dryness of the synthetics to be a dissonant polarity amidst the richness of the labdanum, and it felt too dirty for me (not in a good way) at times. However, a number of people really love Opus VI, especially those who prefer drier takes on the genre. If that is you, and if you like dark, musky and dirty types of labdanum, this is one for you to try.
Ateliers des Ors Larmes du Desert: A cousin to Tom Ford’s Sahara Noir and Amber Absolute, Larmes du Desert goes further, adding a hefty amount of myrrh and dry, smoky woods to its labdanum, and lessening the role of the frankincense. Don’t let that simplistic, nutshell summation fool you, though, or make you think your Tom Ford scent is an easy substitute. Larmes du Desert is a knockout that blows both of the Tom Fords out of the water in terms of complexity, character, and nuance. It may not be a “beast” like Amber Absolute, but it still has an avalanche of gorgeous labdanum and it’s a much more polished, elegant, interesting, and compelling scent as a whole in my opinion.
La Via del Profumo Mecca Balsam: Inspired by the pilgrims’ journey to Mecca, this is a labdanum fragrance layered with frankincense, oud, tobacco, benzoin, spices, floral notes, and tonka. I had an extremely odd, undoubtedly anomalous experience with it on my skin, but most people describe it as a deeply spiritual, smoky, and resinous scent, so you should probably go by their accounts instead.
Tauer/Tauerville Amber Flash: Amber Flash opens with the richly toffee’d aroma of labdanum that’s been layered with vanilla, cinnamon-scented benzoin resin, and the leathery, intensely tarry creosote that is in the base of so many Tauer fragrances. It slowly takes on an Ambre Loup-like tobacco and opium note, layered with patchouli and a smoky, abrasive, and extremely synthetic sandalwood note as well. The smoke, tar, leather, and creosote aspects slowly balloon to brutish levels, rendering this deeply unpleasant to me. In fact, I wanted to scrub Amber Flash. The only reason why I put it on the list is because some people seem to like it, because it may appeal to someone who is looking for a monumentally smoky, leathery, rough amber (and who ideally has no sensitivity to immensely forceful aromachemicals), and because its drydown is a better balanced, less aggressive, milder scent that is somewhat enjoyable (relative to the middle phase), thanks to the calming influence of vanilla. You can read the review for full details.
Armani Ambre Soie: Ambre Soie opens with fresh anise or fennel, ginger, abstract spices, and patchouli, all enveloped in dark labdanum. This is one of the handful of labdanum fragrances that actually skews to the root beer or cola side on my skin. (See Part I for the complete scent details.) A mere 20 minutes in, Ambre Soie turns into a three-way race between anisic licorice, root beer, and gingerbread-scented patchouli. I’m not crazy over the opening for reasons that I explain in the review, but Ambre Soie has a great middle and finish, even if it’s all skin-hugging and terribly discreet. Much later, benzoin arrives, followed by a subtle undercurrent of smokiness. The labdanum stops smelling like root beer, the fresh anise and licorice depart, and the sum total result is ambered, resinous warmth flecked by smoke, clean patchouli, and dark musk. It’s cozy and very appealing. Some people think Ambre Soie resembles Fendi‘s much beloved, discontinued Theorema, but I think the Armani is not as gourmand or ginger heavy, in addition to being much smoother, significantly less synthetic, and better quality.
MIXED GENRE AMBERS, “GREY ZONE” AMBERS, BENZOIN AMBERS, AND/OR “GENERALIZED AMBERS”:
When I went back to re-test several fragrances to pinpoint their specific category and focus, I realised there were a few problems. The first involves what I’ll call “Grey Zone Ambers” and “Generalized Ambers” where the balance of notes puts the scent outside the Labdanum, Ambergris, or Plus categories. For example, it was all about the benzoin and vanilla, or else some other factor was at play, like the use of an amorphous “amber” that was more of a generalized, almost abstract haze. A second problem involves what I’ve called “Mixed Genres Ambers” where the fragrance can’t easily be categorized because it goes beyond mere amber and crossed into another different fragrance genre as well. For example, vanillas or the incense family. And, yet, the fragrance was still mostly an “amber” or ambered resin scent when taken as a fundamental whole. So, I came up with this large catch-all section to cover everything that I couldn’t categorize elsewhere.
Sultan Pasha Cafe Ambre Noir: Cafe Ambre Noir is an attar or concentrated fragrance oil, and is one of my favourite things that I tried in 2016. It’s not an easy one to classify and could fall into a few different categories, so I’ve placed it here. Rich waves of sumptuous, dark, intensely boozy Bourbon vanilla are shot through with musky, salty and caramel-scented ambergris, deeply balsamic labdanum, dark honey, smoke, dry woods, bitter expresso, and chocolate. In its opening, the focus is really on the liqueured vanilla, but the labdanum, ambergris, resins, smoke, and honey are never far behind. The sum-total effect sometimes feels like a darker, richer, Bourbon vanilla brother to Arabian Oud‘s gorgeously molten, honeyed, Kalemat Amber, only this one has a demitasse of coffee and chocolate (mocha?) in lieu of rose and cedar. At the time of this post, Cafe Ambre Noir is sold out and unavailable because it is dependent on a particular type of Hindi Oud to amplify its chocolate facets and that has been difficult to source, but I hope it comes back soon because this is one of my favourite “cozy comfort” scents from 2016.
Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier (MPG) Ambre Precieux & Ambre Precieux Ultime: Ambre Precieux could go in a number of overlapping amber categories, thanks to its waves of labdanum supplemented by ambergris, Peru balsam, Tolu balsam, benzoin, vanilla, and tonka. I fell in love with it from first sniff, and frequently turn to it as a “cozy comfort” scent which is one of my favourite genres of fragrance. Ambre Precieux opens with aromatic, fresh lavender and myrtle over caramel ambergris. Layered deep within are creamy vanilla, smoky incense, spices, chewy resins, and toffee’d labdanum. It’s a luscious, sweet, and resinous mix that is lightly dusted with tonka and benzoin powder, but never so much as to skew into actual “Play Doh” territory, at least not on my skin. None of it feels truly gourmand, all of it is pitch-perfect, balanced, and smooth. The vanilla and caramel amber are in perfect harmony, because both are indirectly kept in check by the innate dryness of smoky incense and the growing waves of labdanum darkness. Ambre Precieux Ultime is a richer, darker, and limited-edition version of the original, and you can read my review for how the ratios and balance of notes differ between the two.
Al Haramain Arabian Treasure: This is basically Ambre Precieux that has been super-sized, as if placed on steroids to amplify its aromatics, its sweetness, its spices, and its power. The review explains how they differ in specific, but I prefer Ambre Precieux because its opening is much less aromatic, leafy, and fresh. However, some men may prefer Arabian Treasure because of the geranium in its start and because it never bears the powderiness that Ambre Precieux sometimes does. (I think there is much less benzoin and tonka.) If you liked parts of Ambre Precieux, but would prefer curlicues of smokiness instead of light, vanillic, benzoin/tonka powderiness, you may want to check out Arabian Treasure instead. (Al Haramain has affordable sample sets, and it’s a company worth checking out.)
Diptyque Benjoin Boheme: Diptyque isn’t a brand that has done much for me in the past, but Benjoin Boheme made me look at them in a new light. This is a lovely benzoin amber infused with styrax resin, patchouli, sandalwood, creaminess, and smokiness. It called to mind a Turner landscape painted in a palette of nut-browns, gold, and silver, then edged in smoky shadows. The benzoin wafts large puffs of cinnamon, while the styrax sends up plumes of smoke up top and a subtle, resinous leatheriness down below. It’s not a complicated scent, but it’s cool and warm, elegant and cozy, sweet, spicy, smoky, and even clean, all at once. Really nice job from Diptyque.
Le Labo Benjoin 19 (Moscow): Benjoin 19 was a constant shape-shifter on me but its essence, in a nutshell, is churchy ambered incense. Benzoin and styrax are swaddled in a thick, hefty amount of High Church, orthodox frankincense and myrrh, sprinkled with some aldehydes, then placed atop a labdanum base. The latter slowly seeps up, coating the cool, dusty, woody, ashy, and clean incense accord with warmth and toffee’d sweetness. Depending on test, aromatic pine and cedar were evident as well. In one version, Benjoin 19 skewed more towards the amber accords; in the others, the myrrh and frankincense took the lead, followed closely by the woods and the “amber” was merely a soft backdrop. Two of the versions were pleasant, I suppose, but Benjoin 19 is, ultimately, a really boring fragrance, in my opinion, especially for the elevated price of the “City Exclusives.” Still, if you’re a fiend for High Church incense fragrances with dry woods and moderate (to minor) amounts of amber, this one might be worth your while.
Hermes Ambre Narguile: I had difficulty deciding in which category I should place this one because it’s quite a number of things all at once. Yes, there is amber (labdanum, benzoin, vanilla, and tonka), drenched in boozy rum, then laced with sheer vapors of tobacco smoke and incense. But there are also cinnamon apple pie and rum raisin notes which are just as significant, perhaps even more so judging by the number of people who describe Ambre Narguilé in precisely those terms. Quite separate from all that, the drydown is centered on tobacco flecked with wood and leathery slivers, and the amber is often merely an amorphous, almost generalised backdrop, right from the start. So, in many ways, Ambre Narguile is more of a broad-spectrum gourmand oriental, rather than a more narrowly focused “amber.” Either way, it’s one worth trying and one of the few Jean-Claude Ellena and Hermessence fragrances I like.
Hermes Elixir des Merveilles: I loved the Elixir when I first started this blog, and I still do. It’s a mix of soft, grey, musky, and noticeably salty ambergris sandwiched between quietly smoky Siam benzoin and Peru balsam. (This is one of the few fragrances that I recall which lists Peru balsam as one of its notes.) The thing that catches my attention in the opening is the bitter, Marmalade-like orange, layered with caramel and a gorgeous spicy patchouli that wafts dark chocolate. Incense and cedar lick the edges; silky vanilla, soft sandalwood, and tonka swirl in the base; and a strong but weightless cloud of musky, ambered goldenness hangs over everything. It’s a bit of a bipolar scent, but I think it’s lovely, chic, and cozy in a very autumnal way.
La Via del Profumo Amber Rose: Dry ambergris swirls in a diffuse, sheer cloud around a velvety rose that is imbued with delicate layers of spiciness, booziness, and soft woods before being placed atop a base of quietly musky darkness. I’ve put Amber Rose into this Mixed Category because I don’t think the amber is really the emphasis. It would probably be more accurate to consider the fragrance as a broad-spectrum oriental or a floral oriental, because the rose is a major part of the scent. Then again, Amber Rose is a bit of a shape-shifter, so the ratios and balance of notes may be different on your skin.
La Via del Profumo Amber Chocolate: Semi-sweet, semi-dark, bitter, and slightly nutty chocolate is layered with silky vanilla, caramel, and tonka, then splashed with a very boozy and somewhat herbal liqueur that feels softly ambered. This is essentially a rich chocolate soliflore against an ambered backdrop, not an actual amber fragrance but I put it on the list for the handful of people who love chocolate and who would prefer their amber to be heavily diluted, sheer, and diffuse. It’s not hugely gourmand, and it definitely isn’t cloyingly sweet. I wish Amber Chocolate lasted longer on my skin and that it didn’t have such weak projection and sillage because it’s a really enjoyable scent. Maybe it will fare better on your skin.
MFK Ciel de Gum: There are different ways of viewing Ciel de Gum, depending on its stages or the notes highlighted on your skin. At its start, it veers between being a floral oriental set against an ambered backdrop and a cinnamon-scented benzoin sort of “amber” that laced with vanilla and fluctuating levels of florals. Yet, when taken as a whole and from start to finish, Ciel de Gum is unquestionably a golden scent that feels more purely oriental and “ambered” than a floral oriental. Its creamy, sweet, vanillic, cinnamon spice, and floral accents eventually turn, much later on, into a dark bouquet of heavily balsamic, smoldering resins licked by a touch of smokiness and a light veiling of powder. I’m not keen on the clean white musk in the early stages, even if its less than the deluge typically used by Mr. Kurkdjian, but it’s not too annoying on my skin. In its late stages and finish, Ciel de Gum is a significantly richer, darker, and bolder scent than his norm, and it’s absolutely wonderful. A real golden delight that is polished and cozy at the same time.
Kilian Apple Brandy: If one went solely by the name, Apple Brandy might seem like an odd choice for this list, but it’s definitely an ambery, golden scent under the deluge of cognac. Labdanum and Ambroxan (the synthetic version of ambergris) are swirled into everything, and feel just as responsible for the booziness as anything else. The opening smells like an apple Crepe Suzette over which vanilla creme anglaise is poured before the whole thing is dunked into a massive oaken vat of pure cognac. It’s pretty heady and intense, as well as being quietly gourmand. I happen to love boozy fragrances, but find this one is a bit too alcoholic and liqueured, even for me. That said, I think the power, force, and degree of alcohol is going to strongly depend on a person’s skin and the notes it amplifies. Apple Brandy is definitely and unquestionably worth trying if you love immensely boozy amber fragrances.
Kilian Amber Oud: This is not an oud fragrance, not even remotely, but it also doesn’t fit into the prior labdanum or ambergris categories, either. It’s a sheer, highly diffuse, gauzy, soft, and sweet scent whose core is best summed up as: Vanilla Amber, Vanilla Benzoin, Benzoin Vanilla, Caramel Vanilla, generalized amberiness with vanilla, or some variation thereof. Pick one, then toss in some cedar, a handful of brown sugar, and a pinch of what smells like patchouli, and you end up with Amber Oud. It’s nice but I find nothing impressive or interesting about it, and it’s much too sheer to feel “cozy” to me, either. Nevertheless, a lot of people go crazy for it, particularly women who dislike any real, actual oud, so it’s on the list.
Annick Goutal Ambre Sauvage (& Ambre Fetiche): I actually wouldn’t categorize Ambre Sauvage as an amber fragrance, but Ambre Fetiche (which it’s based on) most certainly is. The most simplistic summation for Ambre Sauvage is amber folded into “savage” (read: abrasive and synthetic) leather and placed against a backdrop of smoky darkness dotted with aromatic lavender and iris. The last two eventually give way to streaks of myrrh and frankincense. There is a lot of overlap with Ambre Fetiche and you can read the review for the full comparison and details, but the basic gist is that the Sauvage version is more centered on leather than amber, in my opinion, and it basically up-ends Ambre Fetiche’s pyramid of notes. I’m not keen on Ambre Sauvage at all, dislike its synthetics, and I think it’s an attempt to enter the luxury field with elevated pricing but not with a superior product. Ambre Fetiche is a much better fragrance, comes with a lower price, and it’s a truer amber scent as well. Out of the two, I’d suggest going with that one instead.
LM Parfums Ambre Muscadin: Ambre Muscadin was reportedly created by the late Mona di Orio. Its opening skews a little to the masculine side with intensely woody and cedar-driven notes infused with mosses, peaty vetiver, and animalic musks before slowly transforming into a dry but sweet caramel and vanilla flan that is lightly coated with honey. It’s more “ambery” and vanillic than a clear amber scent. The long drydown consists of a dry woody vanilla with only the mildest dusting of sweet benzoin powder.
FRAGRANCES PERCEIVED BY OTHERS AS BEING AN “AMBER”:
Roja Dove Amber Aoud: I don’t think this is an “amber” fragrance at all, not within the framework that I’ve described. It’s dominated overwhelmingly by an intensely syrupy, sweet, jammy rose that is rendered even more gooey with thick fruitchouli, laced with some nondescript, utterly minor, and very clean “oud”, then set against an amorphous “ambery” backdrop. This is a syrupy, fruity rose-patchouli, broad-spectrum oriental, not an actual, proper amber. But some people love it for its gooey, jammy, dense rose, while others rely on the misleading name to consider it an “amber,” so I’ve put it on the list.
Mona di Orio Ambre: Again, not really a true amber, despite its name. Ambre is a rich but frothy vanilla custard infused with florals, cedar, smoke, pepper, and powdery Guerlainade that finally, eventually, at the end turns into ambered, slightly boozy vanilla. The “amber” notes that it contains are benzoin and Tolu balsam, but the vanilla is the real star of the show.
Santa Maria Novella Ambra: I’m not sure anyone out there views this fragrance as any sort of amber whatsoever but, given its name, I thought I’d put it on the list to show just how misleading some of these titles can be. Ambra is very much a cologne that begins with an aromatic lavender bouquet and citruses that are infused with dry, smoky, and leathery birch. It has a lot of similarities with Tauer‘s Lonestar Memories. While there is an ambered backdrop to Ambra, it’s so minor and so utterly irrelevant to the focus of the scent that it might as well not be there at all.
Malle Musc Ravageur: I classify this as a spicy, animalic musk fragrance, but there is no doubt that Musc Ravageur has definite, pronounced streaks of benzoin resin laced with vanilla and a fluffy, more generalised, ambergris-ish note as well. Together, they form the cloud swirling around the gingerbread, civet, and dirty musks that are showcased on center stage. Your skin will determine what particular parts or ratios are emphasized more than others, but if you love animalic, spicy ambers (or spicy, ambered, dirty animalics), then this is one to try. I adore it. As a side note, I think it’s fantastic layered with something boozy or more heavily ambered. I tried it once under Ambre Russe, and the result was intoxicating.
Le Labo Labdanum 18 and L’Erbolario Meharees: Both fragrances are seen as more affordable alternatives to Musc Ravageur, but there are major differences in my opinion that go beyond price and quality. These two don’t smell alike, and they are different from Musc Ravageur as well. Labdanum 18 is an extremely sanitized, clean, and minimally spiced labdanum amber. It’s painfully lobotomized, overly simplistic, and linear. I’m not a fan at all. Meharees is a more intense and richer amber that starts with rich dates, oranges, smoke, earthy spices, and civet. Gradually, rum raisin, dry woods, and incense join the mix. Eventually, it turns into a dry, slightly incense-y, spicy, raisin amber with very little civet musk but with a smooth, soft undertone in the base that almost borders on the creamy. It all sounds great, especially given the low price, but there are some major quality issues (like a bug spray note and shriekingly sharp musk). I’d personally recommend Musc Ravageur instead, even if you can only afford a decant, but read the joint Le Labo/L’Erbolario review and then decide for yourself.
Tauer L’Air du Desert Marocain: I’ve seen LDDM on some amber lists, but I classify it quite differently. On my skin and in my eyes, it’s an immensely woody, spicy oriental that is merely set against an ambered backdrop. What’s highlighted for most of LDDM’s lifetime is a profusion of dry and earthy spices that are fully fused around an aromatic but dry cedar. It’s basically the scent of the bottom of an old wooden spice drawer on my skin, only this one has a marshy, vegetal ambergris aroma lurking in the background. Gradually, smoke, incense, dust, vetiver, patchouli, and black tea notes appear, followed later on in the drydown by labdanum, but the driving focus of LDDM, its fundamental essence, is always the profound, intense spice-wood accord. Perhaps it’s a skin thing, and maybe you’ll experience a greater quantity of amber than I did. Still, regardless of how you categorize LDDM, it’s a cult hit and a beloved bestseller for a reason, so if you love orientals, spices, and woods and if you’ve never tried it, then I strongly recommend that you do. While LDDM is far too dry for my personal tastes, I think it’s masterfully done, extremely evocative, and compulsively sniffable at times as well.
So, that’s it. 50 fragrances across the “amber” spectrum, featuring a variety of styles and notes. I hope the categories will help you to better understand what type of “amber” suits you best and why. Please remember, though, there is no hard and fast rule as how the ratios or balance of notes will appear on your skin, and there is considerable overlap between some of these scents. I sought to give you a rough guideline of the categories and the fragrances within each one, but it is still only a guideline. There are so many variables at play that it’s best you test things for yourself should any of the descriptions interest you. Hopefully, you’ll find a few new names to tempt you. Happy sniffing!