Flankers are much maligned by perfumistas, here as much as anywhere else. At their worst, they're endless — and often, mindless — series of minor variations on perfumes that weren't all that interesting to begin with. There are flankers of flankers, and flankers of flankers of flankers. There are good flankers and bad flankers, flankers I hope never get made (anything having to do with Diorissimo, thank you) and flankers I can't believe ever were made. There are flankers that outsell the original pillar fragrance, flankers that eventually elbow the pillar aside, and flankers that just can't hope to best their elders. Flankers do well, of course, but they're annoying, not least because there are just so very many of them.
In theory, of course, it's not a bad idea: take a beloved fragrance, and explore some facet of its composition in more depth. And sometimes that works. There are flankers that I like better than the pillar fragrance (L'Eau de Chloé, The Body Shop White Musk Libertine, Chanel Allure Homme Édition Blanche). Flankers can bring about a new appreciation for the pillar scent (Thierry Mugler's Angel Liqueur de Parfum and A*Men Pure Coffee spring to mind) or carry a classic perfume into the modern age (Chanel No. 5 Eau Première). Some become icons in their own right (Chanel Coco Mademoiselle). And sometimes, a flanker is something new and wonderful that doesn't seem to reference the pillar more than tangentially (Dior's Hypnotic Poison, Givenchy Organza Indecence).
Hermès has done an admirable job so far with the flankers to 2004's Eau des Merveilles, and by the way, thank you, Hermès, for not doing one every year. Elixir des Merveilles (2006) and Eau Claire des Merveilles (2010) took lively new approaches to Merveille's "salty-sweet" meditation on ambergris, adding gourmand and cosmetic powder accents, respectively. The latest in the series is L'Ambre des Merveilles, which like the prior two flankers was developed by Hermès house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena (the original Merveilles was done by perfumers Ralf Schwieger and Nathalie Feisthauer).
L'Ambre des Merveilles retains Eau des Merveilles' salty-citrus-sparkle opening, but the top notes are a bit fruitier, sweeter and more vanillic. The dry down has a very slight gourmand touch (I would swear there's a smidgen of the "austere vanilla biscuit" from Elixir des Merveilles) but isn't as sweet as the opening. It is perhaps closer in spirit to Eau des Merveilles than the two prior flankers; it feels like a different way of looking at the same theme rather than an attempt to find a new angle. If you asked someone to take the original Eau des Merveilles' abstract idea of ambergris, and move it one small step closer to what modern consumers think of as "amber", you'd get something very like L'Ambre des Merveilles.1 So L'Ambre maintains the original's transparency and aura of understated elegance, but it has a tad more presence — it's somewhat warmer, heavier and woodier, and there is just the faintest trace of something like tobacco leaf in the far dry down.2
I think of Eau des Merveilles as casually sexy — it's not seductive in any hard-hitting or obvious way, and it doesn't seem out of place with jeans and a t-shirt, and yet...there's just something sexy about it. L'Ambre des Merveilles kicks that up a notch. You could dress it up or down, and it might hold up better in cold weather despite the sheer dry down (I mostly think of Eau des Merveilles as a summer fragrance).
The verdict: a worthy addition to the series. When I reviewed Eau Claire des Merveilles, I said I liked it second best, after Eau des Merveilles. That's still true, but turns out that I actually wear Eau Claire more than the original. I haven't yet figured out exactly where to place L'Ambre in that ranking; time will tell.3 I'd know I'd like to have a bottle, but not a 50 ml bottle. As usual, I wish they would do smaller sizes.
Both Eau des Merveilles and L'Ambre des Merveilles strike me as unisex (Elixir des Merveilles is a bit more conventionally feminine, and Eau Claire des Merveilles, more feminine still). The lasting power for L'Ambre is probably about the same as for Eau des Merveilles, despite the heavier concentration: good enough but not great. Be prepared to reapply.
Hermès L'Ambre des Merveilles will launch in September, and will be available in 50 and 100 ml Eau de Parfum.
1. See the definitions of amber and ambergris in the Glossary if you're not clear about the difference; there is also a discussion of "amber" (scroll down to the 11th paragraph) in Perfumista tip: on lists of fragrance notes, why they matter & why they don’t.
2. If you want something much heavier and warmer, you probably want Parfum des Merveilles (2005).
3. L'Ambre des Merveilles, by the way, layers beautifully with Eau Claire des Merveilles.
Update: it was rather late in the day before I realized that my example of a flanker of a flanker of a flanker, Chanel Allure Homme Sport Eau Extreme, was merely a flanker of a flanker. My apologies for the error, and may I offer up instead Victoria’s Secret Sexy Little Things Noir Tease Temptation, the 2011 winner of the The We-Just-Can’t-Stop-Ourselves Flanker Name of The Year award.