Monday, September 08, 2008

Anatomy Of A Lemming: Balmain Ambre Gris

E-commerce and marketing experts do not usually hang out in perfume forums. Too bad, really, because the random stampedes that originate there are worth some serious exploring.

Take, for example, the case of Ambre Gris by Balmain.

Ambre Gris came out earlier this year and until last month was only available in Europe. This alone is reason enough to get all of us, crazy perfume people, twitching and yearning. Uncle Serge has made this into an art form, after all. A couple of months ago one of the more reliable e-tailers suddenly had it in stock and in an incredible price, to boot: Sephora France lists the 40 ml (1.3 oz) bottle for 38.10€ and the 75 ml for 55.40€. I saw the 100 ml (3.4 oz) bottle at Le Bon Marche in Paris for about 70 € (nearly $100). Compare this to the $25-$30 for the largest bottle that you were charged here!

The info spread quickly on every message board and related threads sprouted several times a day. I wish I knew exactly how many people made a purchase, but it seemed that just about everyone did. And the interesting part that separates the Ambre Gris phenomenon from the Chaos rush that followed a few weeks later was that almost everyone was buying blind without ever sniffing or sampling.

Part of the reason is the name. Ambregris is a highly regarded note, even in its synthetic or plant-derived substitute form. It conjures fantasies of precious materials, pungent scents and an air of mystery. Add to that the elegant grayish bottle (it is the season of gray, after all) even with the odd golden golf ball cap, and the reputation of the house of Balmain (looks like everyone manged to ignore the butchered reformulation of their classic Vent Vert), and what you get is biggest stampede since March made everyone crave Kenzo Jungle L'elephant.

Then the bottles started showing up on doorsteps across North America and the first disappointed threads appeared on the usual message boards. Why?

Mainly because there is nothing out-of-the ordinary, mysterious or especially unique about Ambre Gris and it won't take you on a journey to times and places where real ambergris was used in the great perfumes of yore. What you get in the heavy bottle is a modern juice that goes from light and airy (though not in the horrible aquatic way too commonly found) to very sweet. The official notes (translated from Sephora France): pink pepper, cinnamon, tuberose, immortelle, myrrh, gaïac wood, benzoin, white musks, ambergris.

Basically, people were hoping to get some exotic animalic funk, but instead found themselves with a huge bottle of candied wood.

The thing is, I like Ambre Gris. I actually sniffed and tried it in Paris (it was everywhere from Colette to Le Bon Marche). While I thought it was nice, it certainly wasn't worth the retail price. I had much better uses for my perfume budget. But when I had the opportunity to get a bottle for less than I've paid for any perfume in ages (if $25 wasn't good enough, there was also a 10% off code and free shipping). With minimal expectations this was a pretty good deal.

I find Ambre Gris to be a very wearable pretty little thing. The opening has the lightness of a late summer morning. It's cool and barely there (or maybe I'm half anosmic to something). The sweetness follows quickly. It's almost fruity (I blame the pink pepper and cinnamon), but the tuberose gives the heart a little kick before handing the torch to the pudding. The immortelle and benzoin lend the dry-down a decidedly gourmand feel. But for an ambery-vanillic base it still maintains an interesting clarity that makes the perfume more of a crystallized sugar than a heavy syrup. If you don't like sweet perfumes (think L'Occitane Amber or Givenchy Pi), you're not going to enjoy this one, either. But if you're fond of them, you might find that Ambre Gris is a friendly fragrance that (sprayed lightly) works surprisingly well even in hot summer days, and is sure to be just as nice when fall sets in.

But, you know what's really funny? While Ambre Gris seems to be easy to find now from several online discounters (just google it and you'll see), even if the price has gone up a little, LuckyScent, of all places, is now selling it (why?) for full Paris-worthy retail price (screen capture from their web site, because it's really hard to believe):

Bottle image:


  1. What a lovely blog and great review of Ambre Gris! I will definitely order a sample of this... It sounds too intriguing. The packaging is also beautiful...

  2. Is it at all like Lolita Lempicka's "L" ?

  3. You did a great job of explaining how perfume fora psychology works ("give us the unavailable", "give us the bargain to end all bargains", "I have to have it TOO!!!!!")and sneaked in a little expose in there as well. Brava!

  4. TDC- thank you :) It's definitely worth sampling.

  5. Anon, not to my nose, but then again, it's been forever since I last sniffed "L". I remember it as more spicy.

  6. Helg, thank you so much! I tried, since I thought the stampede was worth exploring and discussing.

  7. I just received my bottle in the mail and it is nothing like I thought it would be. It's very powdery and it's starting to remind me of Prade Iris perfume in the dry down.

  8. I just saw the Luckyscent price. lol Wow. I paid $29, but good to know that it was worth $110 at one time (according to Balmain).


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