Balmain Ambre Gris (2008) {Perfume Review} {New Fragrance} {Scented Thoughts}


Fragrance Review of Balmain Ambergris 

The Smell of Natural Gray Amber or Ambergris {Scented Thoughts}

Ambergris is an organic animalic material excreted by sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). This substance in its natural state or near-natural state, i.e., as an infusion, on which I am basing my olfactory report here, has a wonderful, deep, and almost unbearable intensity before it finally mellows down. The tiniest amount of what is already a dilution, something like 5 % in alcohol, takes on a life of its own once it hits the skin becoming worthy of the most ostentatious of monarchs holding court with a seductive, yet iron fist.

Before it alights on the skin, the scent of ambergris emanating from a phial evokes intriguingly enough the smell of pungent dusty old leather-bound books, ones that would have been left to gather the aromas of spices in the most stocked-up of the Comptoir de la Compagnie des Indes spice warehouse and the most religiously frequented too as a suggestion of smoky incense passes before the nose.

Once transfigured by the warmth of the skin, the ambergris starts to glow and finally becomes that sensation to which it gives its name, amber-y, creating a luminous effect which is very close to the visual sensation felt next to a fire burning in a fireplace or sunlight shining through a thick brown glass bottle.

A thousand nuances seem to congregate into a few recognizable facets smelling of dry herbs but also of peach, apricot, leather, dusty parchment, baby powder before the fact, white rice flour, a tinge of almond, sweet fruits, earth, skin, sandalwood, wine-y resin, manure, sand, iodine, hay, moss, cinnamon...It is a world opening up in and of itself, a minuscule universe that has formed thanks to the sea, salt, sun, and marine animals......


"Raisins" amber glass bracelet by René Lalique, 1919, from Ragoarts 


The complexity of the scent of ambergris and its property as a fixative has made it eminently valuable to perfumers. The lore surrounding this raw material is rich and in part explained by the fact that speculations abounded as to its provenance as well as distinguishing features from other so-called "pseudo ambergris". Its perceived value earned it the popular designation of "floating gold".

For the longest time, even after scientific analytical methods became available, the most reliable means of identification were still the nose and eye of a connoisseur.

The Chinese were said to use the technique of shaving some ambergris over boiling tea to see if it would melt in it, as it was supposed to do if genuine.


Ambre Gris by Balmain (2008)


This spring Balmain launched a new composition by perfumer Guillaume Flavigny and artistic director Christophe Decarnin who decided to tackle the myth but by adding a number of fresh ideas to the interpretation of this classic ingredient that has made a comeback of sorts in the past couple of years. First of all, the perfume merits its name if only for the longer dry-down which releases the effluvia of ambergris almost as in its raw state. But before reaching that conclusion it revisits this naturally opulent - in an excessive regal way rather than in a comfortable bourgeois way - material with its uncompromising development, with the addition of an equally powerful ally from the floral kingdom, the narcotic tuberose deemed so dangerous that advice is proverbially given to young girls not to fall asleep near them, lest they get any ideas. An elegant addition of iris tempers down the scent while refining it. A hairy beastly molecule called Animalid, or so it seems, makes its presence apparent in the base (YSL Kouros; Mona Di Orio Lux). The result could not but be a bit impolite, save for the iris, and tend to extremes. However, a modern gourmand inflection takes care of possible overly archaic traits and anchors Ambre Gris in the present day.

This time, Guillaume Flavigny seems to have pushed his composition more than with last year's Balmain La Môme. He has also sought originality and taken some risks, probably aided a bit by inspiration derived from the modern gustatory tuberose composition by Calice Becker for By Kilian, Beyond Love as well as her more frankly gourmand orange blossom floral with a tuberose feel, Love, in the same collection (2007). Ambre Gris is an interesting re-visitation and adaptation of insights garnered from the grand tradition of French perfumery, the one that broadcasts the erotic scent of women and render Les Bijoux Indiscrets definitely indiscreet and bavards, but as if nevertheless, in this case, the hygienic age had made further inroads into mentalities. The little chocolate-y, caramel, and coffee accents of immortelle offer their comforting nuances. For another example of a recent take on this sort of borderline offensive Gallic perfume - in a good way - well-exemplified by Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles, see Agent Provocateur Strip and to a less odoriferous extent, Ambre et Diamant Noir.


Description of The Scent


Notes: pink pepper, cinnamon, tuberose, immortelle, myrrh, smoky gaïac wood, benzoin, white musks, ambergris.

The perfume opens on floral, pungent herbal, resinous facets, showcasing a tuberose that is a bit gourmand while betraying a smidge of fresh candied licorice (Car-En-Sac). The ambergris is powdery, marine, a bit roasted (immortelle), doughy (iris), offering also a nutty nuance in the direction of hazelnut.

It is interesting to see the way in which the feminine odor is suggested albeit in a clean, adapted way: it is at once made pungent - (myrrh with a patchouli-esque edge that stops just short of suggesting a head-shop type of patchouli and which is a nuance present in natural ambergris - and the blunt edges are smoothed down by sweet slightly edible notes. The overall impression is animalistic, but as if laundered through one wash cycle.

The tuberose rounds off the composition giving it a floral tonality, but also creaminess, with an orange creamicicle nuance that we can ascribe in part to an orange blossom facet found in natural tuberose. More generally speaking, it suggests the abstract representation of voluptuous bonbons wrapped in silk. The indolic facet translates as a bit alcoholic, wine-y. The tuberose is spicy and exotic, with a narcotic touch, all facets that remind us of Annick Goutal Passion which is a wonderful and very Indian spicy tuberose.

It smells at one point like a dark chocolate bar (vanilla) scented with tuberose and iris.

Further down in the development, the orris root peeks through more, conferring a bread-y quality to the scent which is also faintly refreshed by an anisic note.


A Complex Development in the Dry-Down 


When the perfume starts feeling less explosive and juicy, calmer, it also begins offering a wealth of nuances. The dry-down smells of Animalid but in a discreet way evoking a mild case of Halitosis. It is not until you are well into the dry-down that you perceive a quote from the powdery floral, L'Ombre Rose, otherwise the perfume feels distinctive in a classical way with very discreet modernized touches (a slightly fluorescent or neon tuberose, gourmand nuances). The patchouli nuance found in ambergris tends to lose its subtle touch further along and become slightly more headshoppy, as in Bulgari Black. Now the ambergris releases its milky-maternal and baby-diaper smells. Hazelnut, licorice caramel nuances are used it seems as a gourmand safety net for a perfume that wants to take some risks, yet if possible sell by appealing to our sense of taste and comfort.

The headshoppy patchouli starts smelling more like sandalwood. The doughy, bready orris facet is quite marked with  a creamy nuance that makes you think of creamy salty soft caramels from Brittany dipped in incense and rolled in iris flour.

The fresh floral facets of tuberose resurface anew edged by a drizzle of citrus. The narcotic, Indian, spicy character of tuberose comes through again. There are nuances of marshmallow and Japanese erasers. Finally a secret leathery orris note appears. 

The way in which the iris comes about at its most purple in the farther dry-down is just a wonderful surprise. Moving back into the air of the room we just left, it smelled of a green tuberose, as if an invisible vase had appeared. So the diffusion must be excellent and the scent even more complex than perceived up close. Longevity is excellent.The latest stages of the scent smell like the white golden ambergris oil we have from Malaysia, with a sandalwood woodsy overtone, a fecal civet-y facet, and raspberry-oud facets in the later stages (an oil that was a bit tempered with?).

We think that a man could wear this scent thanks to the leathery and dark character of the composition, the rooty iris, and perhaps also thanks to the impression of smelling some lavender that could be just an association made with the scent of orange blossom/eau de cologne.

Ambre Gris is currently available at for 45 €. At checkout for international orders, there is a 7 € rebate. Shipping is around $ 50. 

Two other fragrances this season that are remarkable, if only for their championing of complex dry-downs, but generally speaking for more than that: Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Bois de Turquie and Chanel Sycomore.

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9 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. you make this sound absolutely delicious and appealing. i don't think there is one thing you said that turned me off!

    does colette ship to the states, or am i going to have to go the decant route?

    thanks for the lovely, complex review!

  2. Thank you Minette. I find that the notes that were used are quite original and then the scent of ambergris is very faithfully recreated in all of its splendor.

    Iris and tuberose amateurs will be equally pleased I think. The iris is beautiful, the tuberose is very present. Ah and those immortelle notes!

    The only thing I think some people might think is more commercial are the little whimsical gourmand notes, but it's a convincing mix, to me.

    Yes, Colette ship to the US. I ordered from them. It's a cinch. The shipping is 32 € but fast, 2 days later it's arrived at your doorstep. Then there is also a discount of 7 € on the perfume price at checkout.

    You can also ask for samples in the comments box. I think that if they have any available, they will gracefully oblige. They did in my case.

  3. My, you sure liked it more than me! Didn't you smell a strong sweetness in it, though? My skin usually eats up sweet notes, but here, it was very noticeable - and not just a gourmand sweetness, but that sort of sweetish top layer that's in Dior Addict...
    At any rate, you make me want to revisit it, testing in in the middle of a Bon Marché - sniffathon probably isn't the best thing to get a proper idea of a scent!

  4. Yes, it is a sweet, but not just that. The only times I am bothered by sweetness are when it feels unbalanced or cheap. Otherwise, it is just another facet of a scent for me. I would not imagine critiquing a very salty scent for that same reason, unless it felt unbalanced or crude.

    And yes again. It is tricky to get a fair idea of a perfume by smelling it in a department store as the nose fatigues quite quickly and will tend to do a more comparative and relative type of evaluation. I think you can get an intellectual idea of the scent you're smelling, sometimes more than that, but it is ideal to test in the quiet of your study or home to capture the nuances, both on blotters and skin.

    If you can't, then, try testing at the beginning of the sniffathon next time:)

  5. marie-Helene, I wish I saw all those beautiful things you 've seen when it comes to this fragrance, unfortunately all I got was a plasticky watered-down fruity floral version of Secreations Magnifiques, nothing more nothing less...

  6. Girlsodeadly,

    I am amazed by the difference in perception which seems to be so extreme in this case. All I can say is I don't think the perfumer tried to emulate Sécrétions Magnifiques although originally amber gris is an excretion! It indeed has a sexual connotation. I am also sure that you really dislike this fragrance!

  7. what ia the address to order the Balmain Ambre Gris parfume? Please repey asap

    Thanking you ahead of time

    linda kirwan
    • You can order it online from

      Chant Wagner
  8. It is sweet, yes. To me it seems like sweetened version of S.L.Ambre Gris.They both smell grey-like to me. I usually don't like sweet fragrances, but this one is good. About the one of best bottles lately.


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