Imagine sunset on a distant island called Ambre Nomade. As the air hangs thick and heavy with gold warmth, ocean waves ripple upon the island’s dark, hulking cliffs made from thick, solid labdanum. Each wave brings new adventures and nomadic smells, starting first with fresh aromatics from rosemary, lavender and sage. The next is apple, followed by ginger, woods, and vanilla, each one taking turns to transform the island mass, each one ebbing and flowing, creating constant sea changes, never the same way twice. As the sun sets, high tide gives way to a darker and simpler picture where the amber is sultan over his domain, surrounded by aromatic herbal courtiers and vanilla handmaidens, all speaking in hushed voices in his mighty golden presence. This is now a familiar tale, told often and long ago, but it is still a beautiful one, marked by richness and opulence. It’s the story of Ambre Nomade, and the narrator is Élisire.
Élisire is a new perfume house based in New York and founded by Franck Salzwedel. He has a very interesting background. Born in France to German parents, he moved to Indonesia as a child, then returned back to France for his studies. He graduated from the French Fashion Institute in Paris, but chose to work in perfumery, starting first with Giorgio Armani where he developed Acqua di Gio and Mania, before moving on to work with Viktor & Rolf to create Flowerbomb. At the same time, though, he immersed himself in painting. In 2007, he was asked to show his work at an art gallery in New York. He soon moved there to work full-time as a painter, while also being a creative consultant in the world of fragrance.
This week, he launches his new perfume house with a collection of five fragrances, all of them extraits or pure parfum, and all of them exclusive to OsswaldNYC. Several different perfumers worked on each one. In the case of Ambre Nomade, it was created with Pierre Negrin, the nose behind such Amouage fragrances as Interlude Man, Journey Woman (co-done with Alberto Morillas), Opus VII, and Opus VIII.
On the Élisire website, Ambre Nomade is described as follows:
An Extraordinary Journey to the Orient.
A fragrance in eruption. Glorious and promising like the sunset. Empowering like a solar eclipse. Golden Amber in fusion. A lustful blend of warm Olibanum, luscious Vanilla, mysterious Patchouli and Musks, surrounded by exotic Ylang Ylang from Madagascar, Cedarwood and Cistus. Illuminated by a radiant combination of Apple, Apricot, Ginger and natural Aromatics, Rosemary, Lavender, Sage. A powerful elixir of seduction.
Interestingly, the subsequent note list omits any mention of the apple, rosemary, or lavender talked about in the description. All three are noticeable on my skin to a significant degree. Be that as it may, the note list is merely:
Top: Apricot Nature Print, Ginger, Sage
Heart: Ylang Ylang, Cedarwood, Cistus [Labdanum amber] Absolute
Base: Patchouli, Olibanum [Frankincense] Resinoid, Vanilla, Musks.
Ambre Nomade is what I call a “prismatic” scent in its opening stage. By that, I mean it is a scent that throws off notes like rays of light hitting a crystal chandelier, changing from one minute to the next, never the same way twice. It’s a breathtaking tableau of ever-changing threads and colours, a harmonious melody where the beats and even the focus of the song turn on a pin every few minutes for almost 90 minutes straight.
The perfume opens on my skin with a brief hint of rosemary and lavender, followed by a velvet tsunami of gorgeous labdanum amber. It’s incredibly thick, dark, and heavy, almost to the point of chewiness. Swirls of dark toasted nuts, toffee and, I’d swear, almost cocoa-dusted chocolate ripple through it, though the chocolate is probably a subset of the patchouli. The latter seems to hover at the furthest edges, barely noticeable amidst the crashing wave of heavy, positively baroque labdanum. It reminds me of the note in SHL 777‘s O Hira, only this one is not steeped in dark, balsamic resins and smoky styrax. Rather than animalic undertones or lusty muskiness, Ambre Nomade puts the titular note in a quasi-gourmand embrace.
Other elements float all around, strong and noticeable enough to turn the traditional amber soliflore profile into something more original and distinctive. First and foremost is the apple. I’m utterly fascinated by it, not only because it is such an unexpected twist on amber but also because I can’t categorize its nuances easily. It’s sweet, yes, but it’s not juicy; it’s also not like cooked apples, and it’s certainly not like a caramelized, syrupy apple tarte tatin pie. It may be closest to a fresh apple note and, yet, it’s not really like that at all, perhaps because it’s not quite as crisp. In any event, the apple is rather a peekaboo note in that, one minute, it’s as strong and clear as a bell but, the next, it’s merely an illusory wisp at the edges.
Swirling around in an equally diffuse manner is the ginger. I can’t pinpoint its nature either, because it’s too soft to have the bite of freshly grated, spicy ginger but it’s far from the candied, crystallized sort, too. Rather, it’s like a veil of soft, highly refined ginger powder, one that floats on the air, rippling through the apple, and trying to seep into the giant solidity that is the hulking labdanum.
It’s a really fascinating bouquet and interplay of notes for a number of reasons. First, the aforementioned originality of an apple amber fragrance, even if that apple is hard to pin down at times. Second, the deft handling of the drier versus sweeter elements. While the lavender and rosemary may have retreated to the background in less than a minute, there is no denying the subtle breeze of aromatic freshness (mixed with a touch of cedar) that continuously ripples through the amber every few minutes. It’s not as strong as the aromatic chord that makes up MPG‘s Ambre Precieux, let alone the hefty herbal harmonics that open Serge Lutens‘ Ambre Sultan, but tiny beats do thrum in Ambre Nomade constantly. It’s the same story with the apple and ginger, though they thump more loudly. Yet, at its heart, Ambre Nomade is all about that multi-faceted, incredibly smooth amber, beating a deep bass, pulsating darkened warmth with gourmand sweetness.
All of it is beautifully balanced. The gourmand chords may be strong, but the quiet herbal and woody aromatics keep the sweetness from overflowing. Nothing about Ambre Nomade feels gooey, syrupy, cloying, or excessive. I rarely feel as though I’m wearing either food or a dessert and, while the labdanum is opulent in its richness, it’s not so heavy as to feel suffocating. That said, I never feel suffocated by any amount of amber, even in the greatest heat, and I like the dense heft of Middle Eastern fragrances, so my yardstick may differ substantially from some people.
Still, the amber here feels lighter than that in some other powerful (Western) scents, especially as time passes. Less than 20 minutes into its development, the amber is not as heavy or dark as the labdanum-resin-styrax mix in O Hira, not as loud as Tom Ford‘s Amber Absolute, and not as richly concentrated in feel as Profumum‘s Ambre Aurea. There are two reasons why. First, all those fragrances have their amber laced with darker elements or strong incense. That is not the case with Ambre Nomade’s opening stage on my skin, though the situation changes significantly later. The second reason is that Ambre Nomade actually seems to get lighter after 30 minutes, at least relative to the hefty, almost solid wave of the opening. The increased prominence of the apple and the continuing background presence of the herbal-cedar aromatics undoubtedly play quite a big role in that, as they diffuse the labdanum’s dark richness with lighter, fresher elements. Both version are equally appealing, in large part because of the smoothness of each individual note, as well as the polished suppleness of the overall bouquet.
I’m impressed. I hate to say it, but I had extremely low expectations for the Elisire line the minute I read that Mr. Salzwedel had been responsible for Flowerbomb and Acqua di Gio. The degree of my antipathy for both fragrances knows no bounds, and I did not think their painfully commercial aesthetics bode well. In the case of Ambre Nomade, I was wrong and I admit that fully. (That said, I think Elisire’s Elixir Absolu is a ghastly scent that embodies everything that I had feared, from ISO E Supercrappy and floral hairspray/plastic-y/bathtastic soapy fresh synthetics, to a generic, banal, overly familiar designer profile best suited to a cheap fragrance in Sephora. I disliked it immensely.) But Ambre Nomade is unexpectedly wonderful; it smells expensive, and is extremely luxurious in both its smoothness and the clear quality of its ingredients.
It’s also a scent that never ceases to change, particularly in its first stage. After 30 minutes, I’m surprised to detect a cake-like accord. It’s not flour-y, per se, and it’s certainly nothing like pure vanilla, but I keep thinking of cake. An apple one, with a pinch of sage, a light dusting of ginger powder, and some caramel sauce. It must surely stem from the vanilla, but this is a drier, flour-y sort of vanilla than the usual sort. Instead of crème brulée, vanilla custard, or even the cake-batter sort found in Tihota, this is more like an apple-scented vanilla cake that has been taken straight out of the oven, then coated by the thinnest layer of ambergris-like caramel before being sprinkled with lavender and rosemary, then nestled within a labdanum cloud. Moments later, wisps of frankincense smoke appear to wrap everything together.
Yet, 15 minutes later, all of that vanishes, as if wiped away by a wave of the hand. At the end of the 1st hour and the start of the 2nd, the incense surges to the forefront, turning the scent darker, drier, and smokier. The apple and ginger fall to the wayside; the cake-like nuances fade; and Ambre Nomade’s focus turns primarily to a toffee’d labdanum wrapped up in a haze of incense. The faintest curlicues of rosemary, cedar, and lavender ripple in and out of the background, not noticeable from afar, but evident up close for much of the time.
The result is a less original, distinctive bouquet because Ambre Nomade has essentially turned into a heavier, richer, slightly sweeter version of Serge Lutens‘ Ambre Sultan. There are differences, but I think they are primarily one of degree. First, the level of herbaceous is substantially less than anything in Ambre Sultan, at least as compared to the latter’s opening stage. That cannot be stressed enough. The herbs and lavender in Ambre Nomade are unquestionable and very noticeable, but they play ghostly games in the background, rather than being front and center as in the Lutens. They also never smell remotely medicinal here. Second, Ambre Nomade is profoundly thicker and heavier than the Lutens, which was never an extrait to begin with but which has been reformulated into something even lighter and sheerer than it originally was. Third, the two fragrances have completely different opening stages, thanks to the apple, lavender and ginger. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Ambre Nomade has a constant (though fluctuating) streak of gourmandise that Ambre Sultan never had. The strength of the various sweet accords may vary in Ambre Nomade, particularly given what a prismatic scent it can be, but there is always something lurking in the base that sets it apart from the Lutens fragrance with its more purely oriental profile.
Nevertheless, Ambre Nomade’s second stage at the start of the 2nd hour is incredibly similar to Ambre Sultan. The nuances vary, but the core essence — labdanum made smoky with incense and laced with a subtle herbaceousness — feels almost identical, especially from afar. Up close, you can see the various permutations, though they are constantly waxing and waning. For example, a strong streak of vanilla appears in the base, smelling like eggy custard with a touch of flour, and lasts until the middle of the 4th hour. At that point, it fades quite substantially, and the cedar takes its place. Ambre Nomade is now primarily centered on labdanum-incense with woodiness. At the far edges is a whisper of greenness from the patchouli, though it never smells earthy, camphorated, or medicinal. As a whole, Ambre Nomade is smokier, darker, woodier, and barely vanillic or gourmand.
Then, everything changes yet again. Roughly 5.25 hours in, the incense and woods weaken, while the vanilla returns. Ambre Nomade has suddenly become a supple toffee-caramel labdanum scent laced with vanilla in a way that reminds me strongly of a caramel-vanilla frappucino. The fragrance is never as sweet as the drink, and it’s far from a gooey excess of sugar, but it is centered largely on amber with vanilla. I think it is delicious and would have been happy had it stayed, but Ambre Nomade never seems to sit still on my skin. It morphs again at the top of the 7th hour, throwing off the vanilla in favour of darker, drier, and woodier profile as the cedar returns. More importantly, the labdanum has changed to emit honey and beeswax tonalities instead of dark toffee or caramel. Ambre Nomade is now a dark amber with honeyed beeswax and dry cedar.
It’s merely a sliver on my skin at this point, so subtle that I had to bring my nose right onto my arm to detect it, and even that aroma is fading fast. Roughly 8.25 hours into its development, I was positively certain that Ambre Nomade was almost dead on my skin, but the fragrance has not finished surprising me. The thinnest wisp continues to coat my skin for a long time to come, alternatively smelling like amber and woods, amber with honeyed beeswax, amber with vanilla, or creamy vanilla and woods. In its final moments, all that is left is vaguely woody, creamy warmth.
All in all, Ambre Nomade lasted just under 14 hours, though it took effort to detect it from the middle of the 8th hour onwards. The perfume has moderate projection and fluctuating sillage. Using 3 spritzes from my small atomizer, roughly equal to 2 sprays from a bottle, Ambre Nomade opened with a powerful, thick cloud that projected 4 inches at first. The sillage was low but grew stronger after 20 minutes, sending out little tendrils that radiated 5 to 6 inches. As noted earlier, Ambre Nomade became lighter and airier in body after 30 minutes, though it was still a very strong fragrance up close. During its Ambre Sultan stage and particularly during the 3rd hour, the scent deepened, turning richer in body, but the projection was only about 0.5 after 2.75 hours. Extraits generally have softer projection than eau de parfums, so I wasn’t hugely surprised but Ambre Nomade is quite soft for most of its life. It turned into a skin scent after 4 hours and, as stated, seemed close to vanishing during the 8th hour. Ultimately, though, it does last a long time.
Ambre Nomade will officially launch this week at Osswald NYC, its exclusive distributor. (The boutique is having a party Wednesday evening to celebrate the new line.) All the Élisire fragrances cost $325 for a 50 ml bottle of pure parfum. In the case of Ambre Nomade, the refinement, luxuriousness, smoothness, and richness are clearly there. It may not be the most original, distinctive take on amber once the apple-ginger opening disappears, but Ambre Nomade’s prismatic nature does keep it interesting and it’s a masterfully crafted scent from start to finish. I think it’s well worth a test sniff if you’re an amber lover.
Disclosure: My sample was provided courtesy of OsswaldNYC. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.