Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.
Some fragrances need to be well-tested over time to become classics. Guerlain Nahéma was an utter failure when first launched in 1979, but today its ripe, voluptuous accord of ylang-ylang, rose and sandalwood is considered archetypal. Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, on the other hand, has achieved the status of an amber gold standard in a mere decade. Created as an interpretation of a classical sweet amber theme, today it is among the most imitated and recognizable amber fragrances. The genius of Serge Lutens and perfumer Christopher Sheldrake lied in layering a sweet, unctuous amber accord with the camphorous brightness of herbs. The result is a fascinating sweet-savory interplay that evokes as much caramel ganache as tomates à la provençale (tomatoes grilled with parsley and oregano.)
On the face of it, Ambre Sultan seems like a variation on the traditional labdanum and vanilla accord that can be found in many classical fragrances. It certainly has plenty of warm resins accented with dry patchouli and woods as well as a deliciously dark vanilla. Yet, although some elements seem familiar, there are some facets of Ambre Sultan that are surprising. The bright, aromatic flourish of marjoram, thyme and coriander has a piquant character, and when set against the dark, heavy resins, the effect is not unlike a sprinkling of salt over a piece of chocolate. The herbs lighten the opulent heft of amber, while green, vegetal musks soften some of the rough edges.
In contrast to the grand parfums like Guerlain Mitsouko, in which a classical sweet amber accord plays an important role next to the mossy woods and cinnamon sprinkled peaches, Ambre Sultan is a solo performance. It is not a composition where the top notes have a distinct character from the drydown. Instead, Ambre Sultan unfolds all of its gilded, ambery layers at once, allowing one to admire their warmth and richness.
Built in the modern style, it is a radiant composition that combines a great tenacity with a powerful sillage. Wearing Ambre Sultan, I feel as if I am wrapped in a heavy pashmina, which is a pleasant sensation on a cold day. It gathers plenty of compliments, often from complete strangers. Even so, be forewarned that proper dosage makes the difference between a caress and asphyxiation. One spray too many, and the beauty of Ambre Sultan becomes smothering.
Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan Eau de Parfum includes notes of coriander, amber, oregano, bay leaf, myrtle, angelica root, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin, and vanilla. It is sold in the export range. The export line fragrances are available from Aedes, Beautyhabit, Luckyscent, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and from some Neiman Marcus locations. $120, 50ml.
Sample: my own acquisition