Perfume news: Ambre is back! A few years ago the
beauty product company L’Occitane discontinued their Ambre scent, to universal dismay. Well, maybe not universal, but dismay was certainly widespread. I made a point of asking about it in every L’Occitane shop I entered – in Provence France and , just to add my voice – and the response was always the same: I wasn’t the only customer asking for its return. England
We missed this rich, beguiling amber fragrance with its wonderful sweet warmth and lingering caramel comfort. What had once been an everyday spritz, especially in winter, was now being guarded and used like a rare essence on special days.
It’s a scent that begins with top notes of bergamot and white flowers then quickly brings in the sweet tobacco of tonka bean and labdanum. The labdanum is the key – no, not laudanum, the opiate of past poets – labdanum is the sticky brown resin derived from the cistus shrub Cistus ladanifer, a type of rock rose. Even growing in the garden, this plant releases a wonderful scent, sweet yet citrus, and instantly reminiscent of warm Mediterranean evenings.
After about an hour on the skin, the base notes of amber, vanilla and cedarwood come into play. From there on in, it’s all musky wood and honeyed earthiness with more than a hint of maple syrup. This is a scent that lasts but manages never to cloy. It develops into slightly oriental spice and caramel.
Centuries ago, amber perfume was produced from ambergris, the origins of which were very much less appealing. Ambergris was a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and excreted. As it aged it developed a distinctive heavy sweet scent. It was also, for obvious reasons, extremely rare and expensive.
, where the cistus grows wild, are ideal conditions to produce a labdanum substitute for ambergris. It could be made by boiling the leaves and twigs, or as an essential oil extracted by steam distillation. Provence
My novel The Lantern and the novella The Lavender Field have their roots in the use of local plants in the perfume industry in Provence and I have L’Occitane to thank not only for returning Ambre to its shelves but for a small but vital detail that provided inspiration.
The idea of a blind perfumer, Marthe Lincel, came from the realization that there were strips of Braille on the packaging used by beauty product brand L’Occitane en
, based at Manosque. In 1997 the company created the foundation Provence dans tous les Sens (All the Senses of Provence) to introduce visually-impaired children to the world of perfume creation. In the novel, Marthe finds her true talent as a perfume “nose” after a visit to the Distillerie Musset from the school for the blind she attends in Manosque, although this episode takes place in the 1930s. Provence
For most of the 20th century in this region, there was a gradual erosion of traditional farming as young people moved to the towns to seek work in the new industries and factories. The Luberon valley is celebrated for its fruit production – from cherries, apricots, peaches and melons, to apples and pears – and the local specialty is candied fruits, produced on an industrial scale.
The fight to survive was intense for those left behind on the hill farms in a region that was poor until the advent of mass tourism. In The Lantern, Pierre - the only brother - takes off for better-paid work, Bénédicte struggles on at the farmstead Les Genévriers while Marthe finds increasing success in
But how did Marthe really make the leap from a small distillery making scent and soap in the back hills of
Provence to ? What did her signature perfume Lavande de Nuit mean to her? This is the story told in The Lavender Field…and which will provide a surprising link to the next full-length novel in progress. Paris