Amber and I are not friends. While most perfume lovers find musk or civet dirty and animalic, I associate the smell of unwashed skin with amber. I am talking about really dirty skin, homeless-person-tripping-over-and-brushing-up-against-you kind of dirty. Thick, sweet, tangy dirtiness. This is what I get from most amber-centred perfumes. I suppose it is labdanum that does that to me, the way it smells and looks like a bodily secretion. If I haven’t disgusted you completely, bare with me as I unravel the maze of my attempt to love it.
My initial experience with amber was Ambre sultan. If I were asked to bottle the smell of fear and panic, I would just point them to the nearest Serge Lutens stockist to pick up a bottle of Ambre sultan. The bitter, sticky, herbal perfume that represents for me the most claustrophobic of all smells, the most oppressive scent anyone could choose to wear. The moment it hit my skin I could feel it spread tentacles inside my body, suck up my blood and energy, covering me with darkness and destruction. I immediately associated Ambre Sultan with the nightmarish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (I dare you to click to experience the full works of this incredibly sick, religious and talented artist). In my last of numerous attempts to understand why people like this perfume so much, I sprayed some of my Ambre sultan sample on a blotter and of course dismissed the idea of appreciating it completely. The next day I had this strange discomfort as I was walking in my home. Waves of discomfort were covering me as I was passing in front of the coffee table. At some point I realised that the dreaded blotter had been sitting there. Needless to say I threw it away and I think I also disposed of my sample vial. It wasn’t the actual smell of Ambre sultan that I was perceiving but rather the aura of fear and devastation that was recorded in my psyche even without perceptible levels of the actual scent.
I get more or less the same feeling every time I smell a composition that is built around amber with some minor exceptions like Parfum d’ Empire Ambre Russe, L’Artisan Parfumeur Eau d’ Ambre and Halston Man Amber. At some point I thought I finally found an amber I could wear inside the bottle of Ambre Précieux. A benign, friendly amber that pairs the darkly vision of Hieronymus Bosch with the sweetness of pastry. Usually sweet perfumes make me run screaming as well but somehow the combination of bitter, musty amber with an overly sweet, vanillic base almost works for me. The paring of two evils can some times have interesting results. Ambre Précieux opens with an intense alcoholic accord that quickly calms down to a balsamic top with hints of lavender. The sweetness is apparent from the start but is undermined by the intensely resinous notes and the ever-present amber that starts touting brass trumpets. A sound not bright though, but rather what you would expect as the soundtrack of the Bosch painting. There is a very intense presence in this perfume. You can cut it with a knife. It is not a perfume that one would describe as overwhelming but there is texture projecting from it, A sticky velvet texture, like a very dirty velvet robe found in an attic, forgotten by generations of heirs, until an old maid discovers it and donates it to charity, only to end up covering the body of a semi-deranged homeless, toothless old man. I know I am coming off a bit negative, but this is the way I respond to amber and after all this is a very subjective blog ! It takes about an hour before this composition starts to mellow and when it does it takes a very gourmand turn. Vanilla starts dominating the base but nit just any kind of vanilla. This is rich custard made with the finest vanilla, extra creamy milk, almost smelling like sweetened condensed milk, and a homey dose of sugar, not the delicate treatment one expects from a pastry chef. In fact one time I was wearing this somebody asked me if I had been baking.
There was an enlightened discovery in the question of my unsophisticated (perfume-wise) friend. Ambre Précieux does smell like pastry and in fact a very specific Greek desert: galaktoboureko. Or, more descriptively, syrupy custard pie. This is a typical home-made Greek desert, a custard made with milk, eggs, semolina, flavoured with vanilla, neatly folded inside layers of fyllo crust, baked and then soaked in generous amounts of thick syrup. For the authentic, homey recipe, visit Cookmegreek. My personal suggestion is to use white cormflour because it gives the cream a silky instead of a more rustic texture when using semolina, and to use only the yolks of the eggs as they make the cream softer and slightly runny after baking. For extra animalic flavour use sheep butter or ghee instead of ordinary butter. This will add the ambery dimension to the final taste. Scenting the syrup with some lavender might also be an interesting idea to get closer to the Ambre Précieux effect. The most difficult part in the execution of the recipe is keeping fyllo crust crunchy after drenching it with syrup. Professionals do this by measuring the temperature of the syrup when preparing it, It must be really thick! Or if you happen to be in Athens try to find Kosmikon pastry shop. They have been perfecting the art of making galaktoboureko since 1961 and their version of this desert uses very rich butter with a very ambery end result, extra silky cream and fyllo pastry that stays crispy till the last piece is consumed, which is not very long as no one can resist the balance of richness and delicateness Kosmikon has managed to find. Everybody in Athens has tried this once and most people will tell you it is by far the best,
As you may have read Ambre Précieux is one of the few bottles that made it to my desert island chest. I like it. We just don’t get along well. Don’t blame galaktoboureko, just the amber. I have decided that as much as I have tried to make this friendship work, we have both come to a point in our lives where we must decide that we are just not meant for each other. Every time I wear amber anything bad or even mildly discomforting that happens to me gets amplified and explodes into a full blown catastrophe. My levels of tolerance drop where there is no room for comfortable interaction with reality and I find myself running to curl into a foetal position until the very persisting drydown has been washed away by tears of despair. The world around me turns into a Bosch painting, dominated by sepias, ashy ochres and threatening golds. The smell of vanilla is redeeming to some extent but it only serves to underscore the vulnerability of my situation. Ambre Précieux is a divine scent, an absolute must try for every amber lover and a refuge for amber haters. But I think I am a better person without it.
Notes from Parfumo: lavender, myrrh, amber, nutmeg, vanilla, Peru balsam, Tolu balsam
Notes from my nose: homelessness, labdanum, lavender, galaktoboureko
MemoryOfScent by Christos Karageorgos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.