Today, we’ll look at six fragrances from AbdesSalaam Attar of La Via del Profumo in styles ranging from ambered oud to a green fougère, incensey-woody florals, a boozy, chocolate leather oriental, and a salty, vetiver-laden, woody, spicy oriental. They are: Amber Oud, Lake Blossom, African Night, Sensemilla, Cuoio dei Dolci, and Sea Wood. I’ll look at each one in turn, trying to keep things as short and succinct as I can.
A new era is dawning at Parfums de Nicolai, the venerable brand that was one of the pioneers of niche perfumery. Founded and led by the legendary Patricia de Nicolaï, the company recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, changed its name to NICOLAÏ: PARFUMEUR-CRÉATEUR (hereinafter simply referred to as “Nicolai“), and brought in Axel de Nicolaï, Patricia de Nicolaï’s son, as both the General Manager and her collaborator in the perfume-creation process.
It’s a significant step for a few reasons. Axel de Nicolaï was raised in the Nicolai perfume and family tradition, but he also brings a different perspective to the mix after working in the larger mainstream fragrance industry with the big perfume conglomerates of LVMH and InterParfums, and spending time in the Middle East. It was his idea that Nicolai should explore the oud genre, resulting in last year’s Rose Oud and Amber Oud, and his influence also helped to shape the direction of Nicolai’s newest release, Ambre Cashmere Intense. In his main role as the new General Manager, he’s made changes to the company’s marketing direction and sales strategy, but he’s equally determined that marketing should never impact or alter the Nicolai olfactory “DNA.”
We’re more than half way through 2014, so I thought it would be a nice time for a mid-year look at some of the perfumes that caught my attention. I used to do a list of favorite things that I had tried after every 100 posts, but that practice has fallen by the wayside due to the demands of my schedule. A few weeks ago, I was thinking of some of the fragrances I have covered since the beginning of the year, and the ones on my personal list of things to buy, so it seemed like a good time for an updated list.
Perfume reviewing is subjective and personal by its very nature, so winnowing fragrances down to a list like this is even more so. My criteria for selection varied. Some of the fragrances were not really for me, but I think they’re good examples of their genre and done very well. Others are on the list for the most subjective reason of all: I either bought full bottles for myself, plan to get them, or would love to do so, if their high price were not a consideration. Ranking things is an utter nightmare, but the Top Four are firmly placed in accordance with my feelings. The remainder of the perfumes are generally ranked within one to two slots, plus or minus, of where they are in my wholly subjective estimation. None of the 25 fragrances on this list are based on their date of official release, but on what I’ve covered since January 1st through to the end of June. And all of them are current releases, not vintage fragrances. Continue reading
Close your eyes, and imagine diving into a pool of lavender ice-cream. As the bracing herbal bouquet swirls in the air, tonka and vanilla coat your body like silk, enveloping you, soothing you. Yet, with every lap you take, the water starts to change its colours. The purple and cream turn to gold, then to bronze, and finally to brown-gold as the lavender gives way first to patchouli, and then to labdanum. Dusted with tonka, your body is coated with a sweet, spicy warmth that always feels expensive. It is the world of Amber Oud from Parfums de Nicolaï, a world that has absolutely nothing to do with oud and everything to do with soothing richness.
I’ve often said that my second favorite category of perfumes are “cozy, comfort” scents, and Amber Oud certainly qualifies. The last 6 weeks have been frustrating and stressful with the website changes, and I’ve repeatedly sought the creamy embrace of Amber Oud. It riveted me from the very first time I tried it, and I say this as someone who absolutely loathes lavender. To the point of a phobia, in fact. But, lavender or not, I think Amber Oud is truly marvelous. For me, it feels like a safety blanket, one that comes close to wiping away my worries, lowering my blood pressure, and comforting me — all with a luxuriousness that feels like the very best of Guerlain. Given that Madame de Nicolaï is a member of that family and is highly influenced by the Guerlain tradition, the similarities in feel are not surprising.
Nonetheless, let me be clear at the outset about one thing: if Amber Oud is an “oud” fragrance, then I’m Vladimir Putin. If you test the perfume expecting to detect a profound amount of agarwood, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I have worn Amber Oud a number of times, and not once did I detect even an iota of agarwood. Not once. Cedar and some amorphous, indistinct woodiness, definitely. Actual oud, no.
On her website, Patricia de Nicolaï describes Amber Oud and its notes as follows:
Amber Oud is created thanks to the famous perfumers amber combination, based on vanilla and labdanum. A perfume sublimated by the powerful agarwood note.
Top notes are lavender, thyme, sage and artemisia; middle notes are cinnamon, saffron, agarwood [oud], cedar, patchouli and sandalwood; base notes are vanilla, tonka bean, styrax, musk, castoreum and amber.
As noted above, I couldn’t detect any agarwood in Amber Oud, let alone a “powerful” one. So, a more apt description of the perfume might be that of Luckyscent:
Amber Oud embodies a golden effervescence, a freshness you wouldn’t expect from its name. Debuting with clean spice notes and a bubbly profile, the scent presents a generous herbal bouquet. Wafts of lavender, thyme, sage, and artemisia provide a stunning balance to the warm and rich notes lying deep within the scent. The warmth of amber, vanilla, and patchouli anchors the scent but doesn’t disrupt its clean and elegant persona. Laced with saffron and a dash of cinnamon, Amber Oud is sure to surprise you with its intriguing blend of grace and mystery.
As you can see, Luckyscent doesn’t mention oud once in their summation of the scent. On the other hand, I disagree with them on a few things: this is not a scent with “mystery,” I don’t think Amber Oud is really “clean” (thank God), and I’m a bit dubious about the “bubbly profile” bit. Yet, Luckyscent comes close in nailing the perfume’s essence. They are especially correct in noting the perfume’s golden touch infused with a generous herbal bouquet, and how patchouli is an anchor.
Amber Oud opens on my skin with a bouquet that is, at once, herbal and sweet. Immediately, you are hit with the lavender which is simultaneously pungent, brisk, dried, sharp, but sweet and creamy. It is thoroughly infused with tonka, then dashes of golden warmth from the amber, and slivers of vanilla mousse.
From afar, it’s nothing but a tableau of lavender and creamy sweetness, but there are other elements woven in as well. There is a tiny touch of greenness from the other herbs, most noticeably sage. A quiet spiciness and very muted, abstract woodiness also linger at the edges. The latter has a dried, peppery, aromatic and sweet quality that clearly stems from the cedar. Lurking far, far in the background, if you really focus, you can pull out the red-gold threads of saffron, mostly from a faintly buttery, spicy undertone. In the same way, you can just barely make out the contours of cinnamon dusted on the vanilla mousse. However, it takes a great deal of concentration to tease out these nuances, for Amber Oud’s opening on my skin is primarily just lavender tonka vanilla.
I normally despise lavender, shivering at its pungent harshness, its cologne-like briskness, its medicinal and soapy facets, but what a lavender it is here. Simply beautiful, and it just gets lovelier with time. The herbaceous quality of the flower loses much of its sharpness after 5 minutes, and turns more into lavender ice cream cocooned in a soft, golden glow. To the extent that there is “amber” in the fragrance, it really translates at this stage as a warm, deep richness upon which is anchored the dominant duo of lavender and tonka.
I find the whole thing utterly addictive, but I’d be the first to say that none of it is complicated, edgy, original, or even particularly oriental in feel. In fact, Amber Oud seems to straddle two categories — the herbal aromatic and the gourmand — without really falling into either one. And, for all that the perfume has sweetness, it never feels really gourmand to me. The tonka is just enough to cut through the lavender’s herbaceousness and stop it from being barber-shop pungent, sharp, or abrasive.
There is an incredible smoothness to the blend, and its seamless richness feels very luxurious. Amber Oud really evokes the best of Guerlain, because there is no doubt in my mind that the most expensive, high-quality ingredients have been used. (Minus the nonexistent oud note.) Initially, Amber Oud feels very concentrated and dense in its opening moments, like rich damask silk on the skin. Yet, the richness of the notes belies the perfume’s overall airiness and generally soft sillage. At first, Amber Oud’s projection is quite good. 3 tiny squirts from my wonky decant created a dense cloud of lavender cream that wafted 3 inches above the skin, but the sillage starts to soften and drop after only 20 minutes. By the end of the first hour, the perfume hovers just an inch above the skin.
Amber Oud shifts slowly and incrementally. After 30 minutes, the perfume is noticeably creamier, as the vanilla becomes more prominent. It combines with the tonka to create the silkiest, smoothest crème anglaise sauce into which the fragrant, aromatic lavender has been melted. It’s a sweetly spicy mix, shot through with subtle veins of cedar woodiness.
At the end of the 1st hour, the perfume begins its shift into the second stage as a patchouli note seeps up from the base, adding an additional element of spicy warmth. Those of you who are phobic about patchouli, don’t worry. This is a really refined, smooth take on the note, thanks to the tonka. The overall effect reminds me of Serge Lutens‘ beautiful bell jar exclusive, Fourreau Noir, the only other lavender fragrance I have ever fallen for. There are differences, however. Amber Oud lacks Fourreau Noir’s dominant tendrils of black smoke; the lavender here is much smoother and softer; and the scent as a whole feels creamier, sweeter, and slightly denser.
By the end of the second hour, the patchouli and amber share center stage with the lavender cream. Amber Oud has lost its purple and vanilla hues, and turned thoroughly golden. The perfume is drier, and less vanillic, but the amber feels quite generalized at this stage, instead of actual labdanum amber with its particular, distinctive character. As a whole, Amber Oud is a warm, spicy sweet, herbal amber with vanilla and patchouli, and the tiniest flecks of cedar. It feels as though it’s about to turn into a skin scent at any moment, but that only occurs just before end of the 3rd hour.
Amber Oud changes by such tiny degrees that you’re almost surprised when you suddenly realise that you’re wearing a patchouli-amber scent, infused with vanilla, and with only tiny streaks of the most abstract herbal bouquet. The dominant, main lavender ice-cream note of the beginning has largely faded away by the 2.75 hour mark, though you can still smell it in the background. Like fluid, liquid silk, the perfume flows into a new stage where the patchouli is increasingly the driving force behind the amber cloud, followed thereafter by tonka and vanilla. Small slivers of cedar dart about, lending far more dryness to the scent than initially existed, but the oud remains completely nonexistent.
3.5 hours into its development, Amber Oud is a blur of spicy, sweet patchouli infused with a darker amber that is finally starting to resemble labdanum. The vanilla melts into the base, losing its distinctive edge, while the first whispers of the latter’s honeyed, toffee’d, dark aroma takes its place. The effect is to turn Amber Oud’s visuals from gold flecked with cream, to bronze and brown. From a distance, Amber Oud is not as easy to detect, but, up close you are struck by its cozy warmth, its silky spiciness, and its woody sweetness. Eventually, the labdanum shows its true nature with a darker warmth that turns Amber Oud all brown in hue. The perfume clings to the skin like the thinnest glaze of labdanum and patchouli, dusted over by a fine mist of tonka that feels a little bit powdered at times. In its final moments, Amber Oud is an abstract touch of warm, soft, slightly spicy, slightly woody sweetness.
All in all, Amber Oud lasted just short of 8 hours on my skin, with generally soft sillage after the 2 hour. I loved every bit of it, but particularly the opening 90 minutes with the lavender ice-cream. It felt incredibly soothing, a bouquet that would lull you to sleep in a wave of serenity. I thoroughly appreciated how neither the tonka and vanilla felt like a cloying ball of goo, along with the fact that there was almost no powder throughout Amber Oud’s lifetime. The golden haze of the later stages — with patchouli that is first flecked with vanilla, then with amber, and finally with true labdanum — was wonderful. Everything felt perfectly balanced, seamless, and rich.
Amber Oud is not perfect, however. I wish it had taken longer for the scent to turn sheer in weight and soft in projection, but that is a minor thing. The real issue with Amber Oud may be its price. The Parfums de Nicolaï line has always been very reasonably priced — intentionally so, in fact — but Amber Oud and its sibling, Rose Oud, cost quite a bit more. A tiny 30 ml bottle is priced at $78 or €58, while the large 100 ml/3.3 oz bottle costs $235 or €174. Presumably, the reasoning for putting the new Ouds at a much higher level than the rest of the line is the fact that they contain a “powerful” oud note. However, no-one I know who has tried Amber Oud has found it to be an “oud” fragrance. As you will see in a minute, many Fragrantica commentators can’t detect any oud at all. In short, I feel as though I’m being treated like an idiot when a perfume’s price is yanked up for a note that is basically nonexistent.
Is Amber Oud over-priced at $235 given its safe and largely simplistic nature? I think it’s going to come down to personal tastes. I would have said it was ridiculously priced the first time I smelled it when I detected nothing but lavender-vanilla for the first two hours. Yet, the perfume as a whole is beautiful, feels extremely luxurious, and is something that I feel like reaching for continuously when stressed. So, for me, the price is worth it, but I realise that it is a very subjective, personal calculation which will be different for each person. I would not be remotely surprised if a number of you found Amber Oud to be lovely, but far too simple or basic for $235. (As a side note, I realise that there is a much cheaper option at $78 for 30 ml, but that feels a little high for such a tiny size. Plus, this is a scent that I personally would want to use frequently and to spray with abandon; 30 ml wouldn’t cut it for that purpose.)
Amber Oud is frequently compared to Kilian‘s Amber Oud, perhaps because the latter also contains virtually no oud. Personally, I don’t think the two perfumes are comparable except in terms of their overall feel. The Kilian fragrance doesn’t have any lavender or patchouli, and I didn’t detect any labdanum, merely a generalized “amber.” The price structure is different as well. Kilian’s Amber costs $185 for a 50 ml refill bottle, so it is much more expensive on a price-per-ml basis. (I’m not even getting into the full $385 cost for the proper, black, 50 ml bottle.)
On Fragrantica, a number of people find the Nicolaï Amber Oud to be much better than the Kilian fragrance, while a few strongly disagree. Personally, I’m not a fan of the very wispy Kilian version, so I’m with the first group. Below are a range of opinions on the Nicolaï scent:
- Its a very nice Amber+Oud combination. In comparison with Amber Oud by KILIAN, I have to say that Ms. Nicolai perfume is much better (as smell, longevity, projection & price). I think I made a mistake by buying the small bottle. 2 thumbs up
- Similar to Amber Oud by KILIAN, But to me Nicolai is much better. Great scent, happy to have in my collection
- I’m a little bit disappointed. You can’t detect the oud, and the amber note is not prominent in the opening nor in the dry down. Also the longevity is a bit poor on my skin. [¶] To me, you can’t even compare this with the Amber Oud of By Kilian! The Kilian version is supreme!! But then, everyone has his own taste. Beside all that, the fragrance has a pleasent smell!
- Nice surprise!!! I was expecting the ordinary but… Wow! Yes yes, it is Much more AMBER LAVENDER than AMBER OUD! But still so lovely! [¶] Smells soft and wonderful on skin… On me lasts 6-8 hours! Good projection too! [¶] Just one advice: if you’re looking for “the most prominent and strongest” Oud (that I particularly dislike)… Go look another place!
- This smells incredible. [¶] Very good quality scent and very well blended. [¶] If you like sweet-oriental frags. or amber fragances, you must try this.
Longevity and sillage are both moderate-low.
P.D.: The bad thing is the price…..
On Luckyscent, there are only two reviews, one of which is from a woman who thought the perfume’s herbaceousness rendered Amber Oud more masculine than unisex in nature:
This is not a unisex scent. I bought a sample of this to compare to By Kilian’s Amber Oud, which I really like. As soon as I first put it on, it immediately smelled like a strong men’s cologne. It brings to mind an upscale version of Old Spice, but also with some green notes to it, probably from the sage and thyme. I wouldn’t mind smelling this on a man, though. I passed the sample on to my husband.
The Perfume Shrine talks about both the issue of masculinity and the oud, though they categorize the last situation differently than I do:
Amber Oud by de Nicolai however is oud prowling in kitten’s paws, so delicate and purring you might be mistaken for thinking there is some problem with the labeling. Because Amber Oud is mostly a glorious aromatic amber fragrance with copious helpings of premium grade lavender fanned on resinous, plush notes of velvet. […][¶]
In Patricia de Nicolai’s Amber Oud the blast of lavender at the beginning is the dominant force which takes you by surprise and which might make women think this is more men’s gear than girly girl stuff. But they need not fear. Gents and ladies alike will appreciate the seamless procession into a balsamic smelling nucleus. […] Seekers of oud (lured by the name) might feel cheated and there is no eye-catching innovativeness in the formula itself, but de Nicolai is continuing on a path of wearable, presentable, smooth perfumes that have earned her brand a steady following.
The Non-Blonde has a similar assessment:
The first thing to notice about Nicolai’s Amber Oud and Rose Oud is that they don’t smell very oudy. […][¶]
Amber Oud doesn’t smell particularly ambery, especially compared to the Oriental fantasy of Kilian’s perfume with the same name. It’s actually a very herbal-aromatic concoction, like a darkened and deepened fougere that still maintains the bones of a great and classic men’s cologne. It took me a couple of testings to really find the oud in this perfume, but it’s there, hiding right behind the spicy front put by saffron and cinnamon. It’s instantly likable, decidedly fresh, and very refined. Amber Oud probably suits and appeals to me more than it does for women. I just wish it wasn’t so safe.
I agree, Amber Oud is very safe, but I didn’t find it to be half as herbal-aromatic as she did. On my skin, that phase was only a small portion of the scent, and always festooned by copious vanilla and tonka to create lavender ice-cream more than a fresh aromatic scent. Plus, the main heart of the Amber Oud was patchouli, followed by a resinous labdanum finish at the end. As for the hiding wood note, I found that it was always cedar, not oud.
Clearly, skin chemistry is going to make a difference in terms of what you experience, and how unisex it may be. Similarly, personal valuation will determine if the end result is too simplistic for the price, or cozy comfort that is well worth it. All I can say is that lovers of lavender, amber, and patchouli, as well as Kilian’s Amber Oud, should really try the Nicolaï version. I absolutely love its serene, soothing warmth and luxurious comfort.