Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Varieties of Amber Experience 5: Matriarch and Sarah Horowitz

(Editorial note: the below post is a reblog from Il Mondo di Odore, which is no longer publicly accessible. Please excuse irrelevant seasonal remarks!)

Ambrein: The Missing Link

Matriarch AMBRE VIE (2012)

I learned of Matriarch, a small natural-perfume niche house out of Washington state, from Marlen Harrison at The Perfume Critic, who reviewed Ambre Vie not too long ago. In a comment on the post, I inquired as to the nature of ambreine (listed among the notes) and, specifically, whether it was a component of synthetic ambergris. Christi Meshell, the perfumer, was kind enough to share the following very helpful information:

Ambreine has multiple meanings with the same spelling: one as a constituent of ambergris and the other as a refinement of labdanum. The alcohol ambrettolide (ambrain, ambrein), is what gives it the characteristic aroma, and it is also found in true ambergris from sperm whales, so to answer your question: yes.

The ambreine I used for Ambre Vie comes from a refinement of labdanum resinoid from the cistus plants in Andalusia. This proprietary process is only carried out by one company in the world. There is no ambergris (or other animal product) in Ambre Vie.

Labdanum is known by all of these names and more: Ambreine, Ciste, Cistus Creticus, Cistus incanus, Cistus ladanifer, Cistus ladaniferus, Cistus polymorphus, Cistus villosus, Cyste, Jara, Jara de Ládano, Rockrose.

Needless to say, I was impressed. Ms. Meshell's erudition was surpassed only by her generosity, as she then proceeded to send everyone who commented on the post a sample of Ambre Vie, which is why I am able to review it today.

Matriarch is relatively new and not a well-known house, as is evidenced by the fact that I found it listed at neither Parfumo nor Fragrantica. (Not sure whether it is at The Other Site because their server was down...) However, based on the quality of this perfume, that situation should be changing very soon!

So what is Ambre Vie about? First off, I should say that it is not at all a typical amber perfume—for better or for worse, depending upon your perspective. There are, after all, people who are bored by straight-up amber perfumes and prefer amber as a base, not as a stand-alone perfume. Those people are in luck in this case, because Ambre Vie is completely sui generis. I want to say that it is oriental, but it's not a typical ambroriental perfume either. Looking at the notes, one might have guessed that Ambre Vie would be a woody oriental. But it does not seem to be that either.

To my nose, the most dominant floral note is marigold or tagetes, which I am familiar with from a few recent testings of Van Cleef by Van Cleef & Arpels and St. John Signature by St. John, both of which pack mighty punches of bold marigold. In Ambre Vie, the saturated-orange quality of this flower is in full evidence and combines with the woods and tobacco to offer enough complexity to compete quite effectively with the amber, which here does seem to be more of a base than a focal point.

There is also a dark, edgy quality to this perfume which reminded me initially somewhat of Parfums d'Empire Ambre Russe. Perhaps it is the dragon's blood which is imparting an ever-so-slightly leathery quality to the composition? Don't know. As I was not at all sure what dragon's blood even was, I did a bit of quick googling and found that it appears to be a red-colored tree resin, but I was unable to find any descriptions of its scent, and although it is cited as having medicinal uses, I found no references to its use in perfume. (Christi: are you out there? Can you help us out here?)

On reflection, it may well be the ambrein itself which imparts a somewhat animalic (leathery) quality to this perfume, given that the molecule is a major component of natural ambergris, an animal product. In any case, Ambre Vie smells rich and much less rough-hewn and harsh than I usually find all-natural perfumes to be.

As the perfumer's explanation indicates, Matriarch goes to great lengths and far-away places to procure the best natural materials. But this does not seem to be a simple mixture of essential oils (as I found the Red Flower organic perfume oils to be, among other such perfumes I've tested). Instead, Ambre Vie strikes me as a fully composed perfume which undulates and unfurls in complex and subtle ways and has enough contrasts to defy simple categorization.

The amber here is not the stereotypical blanket of labdanum lusciousness but closer to the metal mesh effect which I have found in perfumes such as Balmain Ambre Gris and Laboratorio Olfattivo Daimiris. When I say "metal mesh", I should clarify that I am describing the texture, not the scent, which is not at all metallic to my nose. Although the perfumer has explained how the ambrein is derived from non-animal sources, in terms of olfactory effect, this creation definitely leans more toward the ambergris than the labdanum amber side. I might compare Ambre Vie to a floralized, somewhat more tender cousin to Parfum d'Empire Ambre Russe, but still with an edginess.

My own experience of this perfume differed from Marlen Harrison's, no doubt in part because it is so complex and so we, being different people, naturally find the many facets of this creation variably salient. But we certainly agree that this is a worthy creation and a very complex and well-blended perfume. There is no sense that this is the work of an amateur, as is often the case, in my experience, with the perfumes of all-natural houses.

I recommend Ambre Vie for testing by anyone interested in the many varieties of amber experience, as this creation is rather unique, and it takes the wearer on a very worthwhile olfactory journey. I also think that the quality of this perfume provides grounds for believing that there may be many other treasures to discover at the house of Matriarch...

Perfumer: Christi Meshell
Salient notes: Hiba Wood, Mimosa, Davana, Frankincense, Marigold, Vintage Broom, Sandalwood, Dragon’s Blood, Ambreine, Tobacco

Sarah Horowitz PALETTE AMBER

Sarah Horowitz Parfums is another small niche house, this one based in California. I ordered samples directly from the website and have tried several of them. Although amber figures in a number of the perfumes of this house, two of them are much more about amber than anything else: Palette Amber and Love Comes from Within. Apparently the Palette collections (one of which is shown above, the basenotes) are intended to capture simple single scents, "soliflores" or perhaps "solinotes". Other members of the Palette series include Gardenia and Rose. The perfumer describes the idea thus:

The Perfumers Palette is a full line of single note fragrances that can be combined, worn alone or layered with your favorite fragrance to give it a personal twist.

This concept makes a lot of sense once one learns that Sarah Horowitz Parfums does a lot of bespoke work and also offers intensive perfume-making seminars. In other words, there is a lot of emphasis on sharing the joy of perfume making.

Palette Amberas the name suggests, offers a fairly straightforward presentation of buttery, thick labdanum amber, and can certainly be worn as a stand-alone perfume by those purists who wish to enjoy amber unadulterated by distractions such as spice, leather, flowers, etc. This is a rich and satisfying lustrous golden layer of labdanum amber, and although there is a tinge of something dirty right at the opening, shortly thereafter the perfume settles into that oh-so-wonderful caramel-textured scent beloved to amber connoisseurs. Palette Amber is not sweet, but it has the thickness and texture of soft caramel and is sure to satisfy the cravings of purists.

For those who prefer their amber spiced up a bit, Love Comes from Within combines the rich labdanum layer of Palette Amber with clove, carnation, and rose, all of which however are applied judiciously. Clove can be a difficult note for me, and even tiny amounts sometimes overwhelm, but here it is quite light and blends in nicely with the equally light floral notes to embellish, not overpower, the amber.

The spices and flowers definitely move this composition closer to a floriental than a straight-up amber, and in a side-by-side test, I find Love Comes from Within quite a bit less buttery than Palette Amber. But it also smells great, and worn alone the more complex composition does seem rather buttery. Such judgments are always relative, it seems to me.

Just to give an idea of where these perfumes are situated vis-à-vis some of the other considerably more famous niche ambers, I would say that Palette Amber inhabits a territory closer to Histoires de Parfums Ambre 114 (which is, however, sweeter), while Love Comes from Within lies perhaps mid-way between Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan (which opens with an herbal quality absent here) and Memo Manoa (which is darker and more spicy to my nose).

Which of these two Sarah Horowitz perfumes do I prefer? Honestly, I think that I am torn between the two. Palette Amber is a serious wristsniffer, but Love Comes from Within is a beautifully embellished labdanum amber perfume. I heartily recommend both for testing by amber enthusiasts.

Perfumer: Sarah Horowitz
Salient notes: clove, carnation, rose, Tunisian amber, French vanilla, clean musk, and Indian sandalwood

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