What is amber? Is it a gemstone? A fossilized tree resin? Fur-balls a-la-Whale? Is it an essence from a mysterious plant?
There are so many myths and confusions about what ambergris really is, and there are many reasons for that. First and foremost, because amber is a word that is used for a few different things: a short name for ambergris, the ocean-aged secretion from the sperm whale, a name of fossilized tree resin (Pinus Succunifera, to be exact) which is used in jewelry, as well as an umbrella name for many different compounds that for some extent or the other try to mimic the sweetening effect that ambergris has in compositions.
Let’s start with defining some of these terms:
The fossil Baltic amber comes from an ancient, prehistoric pine called Pinus Succinifera. Amber dust is a by product of the fossil amber industry, and can be distilled to form a smoky-sweet-resinous and somewhat reminiscent of pine gum. This oil is occasionally used in perfumery as a base note, but very rarely. There are also some toxicity issues around this material and it is not recommended for use on the skin. If you ever try to burn amber “gemstones” to prove their authenticity, the smell that comes from the charred resin is the scent of amber resin oil.
Ambergris is a cured secretion that comes from sperm whales to heal its stomach from the scratches of the cuttlefish they swallow. It floats on the ocean, and by exposure to the sun and the salty water it changes its originally foul smell into one of the most delicate and sought after fragrances: Ambergris. Ambergris is sweet, soft and slightly powdery. It is animalic but in a subtle way – the raw chunks of ambergris on their own remind me of the smell of horses… Ethically harvested ambergris that was beach harvested (as opposed to ambergris that was procured from slaughtered whales and went through an artificial maturing process) is very hard to find. It is tinctured and used as a base note in oriental and floral compositions, in very minute amounts as it is powerful and its most significant role is as a catalyst, bringing out the best of each note and melding them all together seamlessly.
I have been fortunate enough to find some ambergris that was beach harvested in North Carolina (the photo above is of the "mother lump", courtesy of Will Lapaz), and today I finally tinctured it – which is quite an experience. Grating and powdering the ambergris – which is very much like a fragile yet hard resin – is an experience on its own. The scent is delicate yet animalic and intoxicating, but never overwhelming… The tincture needs to be matured for at least six months before a considerable effect is achieved. And from than it is said to become only better with time… Because of its rarity and preciousness I will use ambergris in bespoke perfumes or limited editions.
Lastly, ambrette seed – which has nothing to do with amber or ambergris, except that its has a significantly similar name. For more information about ambrette seed in all of its forms and it’s important role as the most sought after vegetale musks, please see my previous article.
Another myth I would like to break here (since we are talking about animal/plant equivalences) – I deeply disagree with the common knowledge often presented in aromatherapy books that Clary Sage is the closest thing to ambergris in the plant kingdom. It is not. In fact there is very little in common that I can see or understand. The wine-like quality of Clary Sage must have had some influence on their nose… Unless, of course, those lucky souls had their hands on a very unique stash. I am yet to find that Clary Sage… Clary Sage can be used as an accent in amber compounds, but cannot be relied upon to make a compound smell like ambergris.
Amber used to be used as a short name for ambergris. However, because of the cost and rarity of ambergris, perfumers have constructed many different compounds to assimilate ambergris or to create a warm, sensual, ambery impression by using other aromatics. Natural amber compounds usually contain a combination of Labdanum, Styrax Levant, Benzoin and vanilla. This creates a soft, sensual, warm, comforting and sweet aroma that lingers for many hours and also acts as a fixative for other notes.
We see that amber in perfumery context is really a name for compounds with certain characteristics in common. All ambers are sweet base notes, and act as a fixative as well as add a sweet, soft and round note to a composition. However, ambers can differ greatly depending on what they are made of. There are synthetic ambers of different kinds and characteristics (i.e.: crystalline ambers are sheer and not as sweet as other ambers), and the same goes for natural amber compounds.
Let’s look at the three key ingredients that are essential for creating natural amber compounds:
One of my most favourite scents – the gum resinoid from the rockrose is as close as plants can get to ambergris. The ambery, sweet, honeyed aroma of labdanum plays a key role in many chypre and oriental compositions and is an important ingredient in amber compounds, along with Styrax and Benzoin. Labdanum absolutes vary in quality – some are lighter, some are sweeter than others, and some are more leathery and animalic.
Styrax Levant (Liquidamber Orientalis)
One of the essential components of amber compounds, Styrax Levant has top notes reminiscent of epoxy glue, yet it is sweet and pleasant, and has a smoothing ambery effect. It is sweet, floral and balsamic.
Benzoin is a sweet balsam from a tropical Asian tree with fixative qualities. It is reminiscent of vanilla but does not overwhelm delicate floral and citrus notes. There are two varieties of benzoin: Siamese and Sumatran. The Benzoin from Siam (grown in China, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) is a bit dried and powdery. The Benzoin from Sumatra is sweeter and richer, almost caramel-like, and comes from Sumatra, Java and Malaysia.
I have created a basic amber formula which contains these three essences only – Labdanum absolute, Styrax Levant and Benzoin. This amber on its own is quite boring (though it has a nice fixative quality and will not overpower delicate heart and top notes). To transform this basic amber into a unique amber compound or even a complex amber perfume – I like to use accent notes. My favourite ones to use are the following:
For sweet, mouthwatering gourmand amber, I like to add essences such as honey absolute, vanilla absolute, tonka bean and Peru balsam.
For a warmer, drier amber – I add spicy notes such as cinnamon, cloves, Tolu balsam and cassia. Herbs such as sage, clary sage and juniper can be used in minute quantities as well.
To add mystery and allure - patchouli and incense (sandalwood, olibanum, etc.) can be utilized to great effect as long as the proportions are right.
And of course – minute quantities of floral notes such as rose and jasmine will soften and round the amber compound, giving it depth without turning it into a flower.
To learn more about natural amber compound and the amber/ambergris/Baltic amber resin confusion, read this article.