“Amber” is a glorious genre of perfumery, a showcase for all that is decadent, inviting, resinous, and golden in scent, with facets that range across a broad spectrum from the musky, sultry, smoky, and spicy to the deliciously cozy with sweetened aromas of toffee, caramel, or vanilla. But “amber” is a word that needs to be in quotation marks because it is, in reality, an umbrella catch-all term that encompasses many varieties of materials and, as a result, a slew of different aromas or styles.
I’d like to go over the basics of those genres or, to be more precise, sub-genres in what will be a two-part series, starting today with the history, definitions, basics, and scent profile of the materials in each group. In the next post, Part II, I’ll list fragrances that I love and recommend within each category, as well as a few famous ones beloved by others, even if they don’t strike the same chord with me.
Before we get to the discussion and definitions, I think it’s important to explain the parameters of this post. First, fragrances in the overarching and massive “oriental” genre almost always contains some sort of “amber” material in their base, whether labdanum, a synthetic, or something else. Such broad spectrum orientals are not the subject of this two-part series, only fragrances where “amber” is the key focus. In other words, soliflore fragrances where the “amber” ingredient is highlighted above all else, and where any accompanying elements are merely incidental and/or used to emphasize the innate characteristics of the central note.
That brings me to my second point. There is often an overlap between the various sub-genres, and the demarcations are not always precise. A labdanum-centric soliflore is quite likely to include a few additional resins and/or vanilla and, as a result, it may well fall into what I’ve termed or deemed “Labdanum Plus.” It comes down to the balance of notes, the strength of the main one on a person’s skin (in this case, my own), and a rather subjective assessment as well.
Third, one of my goals for today’s post is to give you a sense of what each component in the different sub-genres smells like, so that you can understand why a particular composition smells the way it does and, more importantly, so you can better navigate the huge, overarching “amber” category to find something that suits your particular tastes. Strange as it may be for those of us with a passion for “amber,” some people actually don’t like fragrances in this genre. (Shocking, I know.) In a few cases, though, I suspect that they merely think that they don’t like ambers because they haven’t tried a variety or type that would actually suit their personal style or preferences. My hope is that knowing how the various materials smell and, more importantly, having a better understanding of what I’ll call the “Dilution Issue” might help a few people to find an “amber” to love. So, let’s begin with the various types and definitions.
“Amber” is a very imprecise generalization that refers to any fragrance that, as a general rule, is centered on ambergris, labdanum resin, or a synthetic version thereof. Quite often, that central note is then supplemented by other elements: benzoin resin (usually Siam benzoin), other resins (e.g., Tolu balsam resin), vanilla, tonka, or some combination thereof. The quantity of the supplementary materials makes a difference to the style and profile of the “amber” that is presented. For example, the more benzoin and/or vanilla is present, the more diluted the key note will be and the more the overall profile will change. Fragrances with a significant quantity of benzoin and vanilla will typically be fluffier, lighter, sweeter, and, sometimes, more powdery.
In its most literal, traditional, or decorative sense, “amber” refers to resin or sap that trickles down from cuts to the tree, and drops onto the ground below where, over the course of centuries, millenia, or even longer, the accumulated pool hardens and solidifies. This is the sort of amber that one finds in jewellery, antiques, or fossils, and it is considered to be a semi-precious stone. It is not, however, the sort that is typically or commonly used in perfumery. There, references to “amber” are usually to the resin form or ambergris, not to the fossils. Ambergris is actually a whole other animal, almost literally so. (More on ambergris much later.)
AbdesSalaam Attar of La Via del Profumo has a collection of Baltic amber whose dark, opaque colour and hardness are a sign of their age. In a blog post on his site, he says that Baltic amber may be 150 million years old. I always thought that fossilized amber had no actual scent in its hardened and unburnt state, but he writes that it does have an aroma that is “similar to rubbery lemony frankincense,” although much more delicate. After being tinctured, he says that its aroma is largely the same, but even lighter and quite fleeting. At one point in his post, he writes that the tincture smelt “camphorous limony and incensy.”
By the way, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term “tincture” or “tincturing,” it refers to a method of extraction in perfumery. Almost everything can be tinctured, but it is often the main method for such hard, dense raw materials as fossilized amber, resinoids or ambergris. The process begins by grinding or pulverizing a chunk of the hard material down into a fine powder which is poured into a bottle that is subsequently filled with perfumer’s alcohol or some type of carrier oil (jojoba, for example). The solution must be shaken daily, sometimes every few hours, for the first few weeks, then gradually let to sit and steep for several months so that it may absorb the aroma and character of the ingredient.
The aroma which AbdesSalaam describes as “camphorous limony and incensy” like frankincense is not the aroma traditionally associated with “amber” fragrances. When people talk about “resinous,” they usually mean something much darker, chewier, and sweeter with innate facets of spiciness, goldenness, and smokiness. Eden Botanicals is an American essential oils and raw materials store which sells a type of fossilized amber oil that fits the traditional amber profile much more closely. They say theirs comes from fossilized tree resin originally from pine trees in the Himalayas or China. As they explain:
Unlike our oils from living plants, there is no essential oil that can be directly obtained from the fossilized resin. Instead, the oil comes from a process called dry distillation whereby the amber resin is processed over high heat until an oily substance is obtained. […][¶]
Compared to the oil extracted from Baltic amber, our Fossilized Amber Oil is extracted from 35 million year old Himalayan fossilized tree resin. This makes for a dark, viscous oil with smoky, resinous, leathery, woody-dry notes and hints of pine and balsamic overtones. A unique and interesting note in any natural perfume composition, Fossilized Amber Oil dissolves in both alcohol and fixed oils and makes an excellent fixative and base note.
Aromatic Profile: Smoky, resinous, leathery, woody-dry with a hint of pine & balsamic overtones.
Appearance: Dark brown-red oil with a molasses-like consistency which dissolves in both alcohol & fixed oils.
It’s interesting but, to be frank, much of this is merely academic because fossilized amber is simply not widely used in regular or niche perfumery. I’m someone who loves this genre so much that I seek out every hardcore, major amber fragrance that I can find, and, yet, I cannot think of a single one that is centered solely or even to large degree on real fossilized amber. No, not even SHL 777‘s O Hira which has “fossilized amber” as its sole, official note. As I’ve tried to explain with each SHL 777 review, Stephane Humbert Lucas prefers to give nutshell synopses for his note lists, rather than the actual or complete thing. In the case of O Hira, he opted for the fantasy literary interpretation of his fragrance as opposed to the true specifics. He has not only confirmed that to me, but I can tell for myself because O Hira is a labdanum soliflore if there ever was one, a behemoth of labdanum amplified through the use of other dark resins and probably some patchouli and ambergris as well. But he did not use actual fossilized amber as the central axis of his fragrance. So let’s move on the important labdanum category.
LABDANUM & MIXED LABDANUM ACCORDS:
Labdanum is the name for the resin or gum that seeps out of the cistus ladanifer plant. Its other names are Rock Rose or even “Rose of Sharon,” the latter being a biblical reference that shows how long labdanum has been in use. According to Wikipedia, labdanum was mentioned in the Book of Genesis, twice, and possibly indirectly referenced in the Old Testament as well. In addition, some scholars believe that the decorative, detachable, false beards worn by the Egyptian pharaohs were made from labdanum-soaked goat hair. Goats are actually important to labdanum’s tale, as they were typically the main way of extracting the resin from the cistus plant. Goat herders would find their animals coated in black gunk across their beards, chests, or flanks after grazing too close to the plant. They would scrape off the substance to sell it to traders, to use as a natural medicine to treat a variety of different ailments, or to burn it as incense.
In modern times, Arctander lists a number of different olfactory forms and aromas for labdanum and cistus in his Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Cistus seems to be extracted in a different way, typically via steam distillation from the leaves of the plant, and its scent doesn’t seem to be “ambered” in the way that we (or I) typically use that word. It’s sometimes described as being drier, woodier, more incense-like, and aromatic. Arctander describes it as being lighter and more herbaceous in aroma than labdanum, even comparing its scent to chamomile at one point. (Ibid, at 169-170.)
Cistus isn’t really relevant for our purposes here because it is labdanum that is one of the two primary natural and traditional sources for all compositions classified as “amber.” (The woody-amber aromachemicals don’t count as natural and would be the subject of an entirely different post.) Ambergris is the other key source but, one perfumer with whom I spoke about this subject a few years ago, views it as something quite separate. To paraphrase her words, “‘amber’ is really labdanum and only labdanum. Ambergris is quite different and something else. Great, but different and another category.” In hindsight, I wish I had asked why, but I stuck to the gist of her main point which was that labdanum was the main and traditional source of the ambered base in perfumery. (My guess is that the cost and rarity of ambergris are why she excluded it as a typical thing.)
So, what does labdanum smell like? Labdanum is heavier, darker, richer, spicier, and more balsamic than cistus, though its underlying aromas can also be leathery, in addition to tarry, oily, somewhat phenolic, and smoky. To me, it is immensely chewy and redolent of toffee. Some people describe it as smelling of “cola” or “root beer,” by which they mean the syrupy, dark, spicy-sweet aroma deep in the base of Coca Cola or the sweet, licorice-y American soft drink called root beer. It’s true, some labdanum fragrances do smell of root beer, but I find toffee to be the most common aroma. The second strongest character is often caramel, but that may well be the result of benzoin or vanilla diluting or cutting the labdanum. In its darkest, most absolute and concentrated form, labdanum can smell musky, smoky, spicy, leathery, and woody with undertones ranging from licorice and tobacco to tar, expresso, oiliness, and even a faint touch of roasted dark nuts. In its drydown, it can sometimes take on nuances of dark honey and beeswax as well.
The specific nuances really seem to depend on what secondary materials accompany the labdanum. If it’s heavily cut or diluted with other elements, the result is a bouquet that is golden, fluffy, more vanillic, and more caramelized than toffee’d or root beer-like. It’s certainly not leathery, tarry, or oily. Its colour visuals skew away from the brown, brown black, and dark bronze golds and to something more purely golden. It’s weight and body are lighter; and it doesn’t feel so balsamic as to be practically treacly.
As a side note, the term “balsamic” frequently confuses people but it’s simply another way of saying “resinous.” I typically use it to refer to any type of resin in its most intense, darkest, chewiest form where there is often a smoldering quality amidst its darkly spiced sweetness or other facets. Think of vinegar where “Balsamic vinegar” is the darkest, heaviest variety and where it is practically syrupy in body when you buy the ultra aged, high-end ones. Now compare that to something like Apple Cider vinegar which is light in colour, thin in mass, and sharper in both taste and scent. Both types of vinegar serve a purpose, but different ones suit different sauces, foods, recipes, or taste profiles which the chef is aiming to create. It’s the exact same thing in perfumery when it comes to a heavily “balsamic” resin versus one that is mixed with other elements to have a softer, milder, or sweeter scent. For that matter, it’s the exact same philosophy when it comes to every type of “amber” material, including ambergris or aromachemicals: it depends on the “recipe” and “dish” that the perfumer is aiming for.
For our classification purposes here, I use “Labdanum” or “Labdanum Amber” to refers to soliflores where it is the showcase note irrespective of any other materials that may be included. There may very well be benzoin, vanilla, other resins (styrax, Tolu balsam, Peru balsam), tonka, perhaps patchouli, or some combination thereof but, to all intents and purposes, when you smell the fragrance, what hits you above all else is labdanum, labdanum, and more labdanum. The secondary or tertiary elements never detract from that overwhelming, dispositive focus. A perfect example of this would be SHL 777‘s aforementioned O Hira which is not merely the Incredible Hulk of ambers, but of labdanum in particular. (Alas, it has a hulk of a price tag to match). Another example would be Dior‘s sadly discontinued, cult favourite, Mitzah. There may be rose, incense, and patchouli in the fragrance, but the star is the labdanum and always the labdanum.
In contrast, when I say “Labdanum Mixed” or “Labdanum Plus” fragrances, I mean ones where those other notes often share center stage and are almost as pronounced. But, as I noted at the start, it’s not always easy to categorize perfumes when there is an overlap, and it’s not cut-and-dry if something is mostly a labdanum fragrance or if the other notes are impactful and prominent enough to make it a “Labdanum Plus” one. It depends on one’s skin, which notes it emphasizes, one’s perception of things, and other subjective criteria. Nevertheless, interconnected or not, I do think there is a difference between the two genres and their scent profiles.
In the mixed accord fragrances, there are several elements that are traditionally layered with the labdanum and one very common one is Benzoin. It comes from the styrax tree, and it tends to have a vanillic sweetness, a cinnamon-like spiciness, and a touch of smokiness underneath. (The resin called styrax or storax is actually from a different source, and smells quite leathery and much smokier. It’s perhaps the smokiest of all resins.) Siam benzoin is the highest grade of benzoin, but all types have a scent that is highly complementary to labdanum. Depending on the quantities used, it underscores the richness of the amber, and rounds out its more leathery, smoky, cola-like, or tarry aspects without sending the overall composition into gourmand territory (which is what vanilla can do in great quantities). For a perfumer who wants to keep things dark but with a modicum of sweetness and an undertone of cozy spiciness, benzoin is a great choice of additives.
Personally, I love it as an alternative to vanilla itself. In fact, I frequently prefer it. Not all vanillas are created equal and the really good extracts can be phenomenally expensive. Benzoin essences smell much less sugared than actual vanilla, are somewhat drier, have a great tinge of woody smokiness underneath, are darker in visuals than vanilla, and the lower grade (non-Siam ones) are cheap to purchase. The one thing that makes them a pain for the non-perfumer, casual user who is looking to drench themselves in its delicious coziness is that the purest, richest, and strongest form of the material (the resinoid essential oil) is basically sludge in a bottle. Glorious sludge, but sludge nonetheless. You must warm it up first, usually by placing the bottle in hot water, to liquefy its contents for easier use. Labdanum is the same unless you buy them heavily diluted to a 10% strength in some sort of carrier, like perfumer’s alcohol, jojoba oil, or the like.
Tolu or Peru balsams are also great complements to labdanum. They are resins from different types of trees, but both smell spicy, sweet, resinous, faintly woody, and quietly vanillic. Peru is the lighter version with much more obvious vanillic overtones. The essential oil that I smelt during the perfume seminar I took was actually a lot like a woody, spicy form of vanilla, and not a whole lot else. The Tolu type is darker, heavier, less vanillic, and smokier but, beyond that and in all frankness, I’m not all that certain I can tell the other differences between them when faced with the basic, average grade of the two. The grade of material, its form, and how much is used all seem to impact what I smell.
For example, Sultan Pasha Attars uses a really concentrated, high quality grade of Tolu balsam in its absolute form and you can actually feel its intensely treacly heaviness in addition to smelling its balsamic aromas, spiciness, muskiness, subtle undertones of leatheriness, and a definite licorice or anisic whiff in the drydown as well. The licorice, muskiness, smokiness, leatheriness, degree of spiciness, intensity, and richness are probably the major differences between the Tolu and the milder, more vanillic, sweeter Peru variety. So, in that way, I think Tolu balsam skews somewhat closer to labdanum on the profile spectrum, while Peru balsam feels like it’s more in benzoin’s general ballpark but, again, the grade, quality, and concentration of each one probably make a significant difference.
The most widely used, common accompaniment to labdanum-mixed fragrances out of all of them is vanilla. It’s much more typical than something like Tolu balsam and even more so than benzoin. In fact, the vast majority of “amber” fragrances out there are centered on a duet of labdanum with vanilla and then, perhaps, some benzoin as well. The vanilla may be a natural material or a synthetic like, for example, vanillin. Actual vanillin seems to be an organic compound that is the primary extract of the vanilla bean but, because of the high cost of natural extraction and of vanilla pods in general, most vanillin in perfumery is purely synthetic.
Vintage Shalimar is a great example of the role of vanilla in an ambered or oriental composition. In actuality, there is no real, natural vanilla in Shalimar, only expensive ethylvanillin which is a stronger and much creamier synthetic than vanillin. Hefty amounts of it were combined with labdanum, benzoin, and other resins. For the latter, some say Peru balsam, but I think it’s more than that. In my opinion, Tolu balsam accounts for some of the licorice, anisic, and ambered facets; styrax resin helps the leatheriness in the base; and Peru balsam amplifies both the vanilla and the tonka’s vanillic powderiness.
The cumulative effect may be why some experts and bloggers view Shalimar as the original “amber” fragrance that set the benchmark for all subsequent interpretations of the genre. That may be true but, personally, I would classify vintage Shalimar as the most influential “floral oriental” and the mothership from whence that particular genre derived and then, alternatively, as the first floral vanilla more than an actual amber fragrance. While there is no denying the profound, intense, ambery accord at its heart, I think the vanilla (or ethylvanillin) actually outweighs the labdanum by a mile and the other base accords by several miles, particularly in the non-parfum or eau de toilette concentrations.
THE DILUTION EFFECT OR ISSUE:
Whether it is Shalimar or something else, the key element in determining how an “amber” fragrance smells as a whole is, in my opinion, the quantity of the materials accompanying the labdanum. In the past, I’ve noticed that many readers who say that they “struggle” with amber fragrances are actually struggling with the purity, singularity, strength, and weight of that one key note, the labdanum. They find it too dark, too heavy, and, if I recall one reader’s comment correctly, either “oppressive” or “suffocating” in feel.
In addition, I’ve noticed from comments left on sites like Luckyscent or Fragrantica that some female perfumistas view the more unadulterated, heavier ambers (usually labdanum soliflores) as skewing “too masculine,” and “too dark” for their tastes. Some interpret the welter of balsamic, dark chewiness as “too leathery” and, as a result, too “masculine” once again. They prefer the sweeter, lighter, fluffier, softer, lightly powdered, and more intensely vanillic form which they tend to perceive as being more “feminine.”
Now, the way that a fragrance’s particular notes manifest themselves on your skin will vary from one person to another, particularly if your skin is dry versus being well-hydrated, and everyone knows (or should know) that the lens through which one perceives the notes will depend on purely personal, wholly subjective elements, like one’s experience levels, one’s background, one’s scent history, and more.
Yet, despite all that, I think a significant reason for some people’s struggle is the lack of dilution. When one male reader told me long ago that he felt ambers were “oppressive,” I suggested more diluted compositions where the strength and purity of the labdanum were cut through with large quantities of vanilla and benzoin but, even more than that, suggested fragrances where the labdanum was accompanied by aromatic elements that he enjoyed. In his case, I recommended trying MPG‘s Ambre Precieux which combined lavender and myrtle with labdanum diluted with a lot of benzoin and some vanilla. In the case of a female reader who was dubious about labdanum and the amber genre as a whole due to its weight and “heaviness,” I suggested easing into things gradually by opting for ambergris instead of labdanum, preferably ambergris presented with lightness, airiness, dryness, and a softer projection in addition to being diluted through the presence of rose, benzoin, and vanilla. (In her case, it was Dior‘s Ambre Nuit.) It worked, she found her first amber love, and her original distaste for the genre gradually gave way to curiosity and an interest in exploring the “amber” category more fully. Eventually, she ended up with a huge passion for the very darkest, richest, and strongest types, particularly labdanum.
The flip-side of the equation approaches the notes and dilution issue from the reverse. I know some people dislike ambers as being too sweet, powdery, gooey, or even redolent of “Play Doh” sometimes. Honestly, I think those are the labdanum fragrances that have been too diluted! The heightened level of benzoin and vanilla may well be accompanied by tonka and even some heliotrope to give it that extra degree of “Play Doh”-like sweet fluffiness. (Both tonka and heliotrope can give off “Play-Doh” aromas in addition to the more typical vanilla powder ones. See e.g., Guerlain’s Cuir Beluga.) As I’ve tried to explain, labdanum that is accompanied by the darkest resins is quite different in its style or olfactory profile than one which is deluged and diluted with sweeter, lighter ingredients.
The moral of the story is, if you’ve previously struggled with “ambers” as a broad genre of perfumery, I think it’s important not only to consider the type but also the issue of whether the core note has been diluted (or not diluted, as the case may be) by other notes. Perhaps you need a particular style of composition to give the amber some extra element that suits your individual tastes, be it extra sweetness or extra darkness, more ruggedness or greater softness, a fresh counterbalance, or something else. Here, as in all genres of perfumery, it’s essential in my opinion not only to know the specific notes that you love and the ones that you struggle with, but also to consider the “dilution” issue because that’s what may make a big difference. If you know your notes and how the materials smell, you’ll be able to navigate through the maze with greater ease.
Bottom-line, please don’t think that all “ambers” are the same and please don’t rule them out as a general category across the board. There is one out there that will be perfect for you!
Ambergris is really a special genre all by itself, in my opinion. For one thing, it is the only material on this list that comes from an animal instead of a botanical source. For another, its scent is quite different than anything resin-based. When used in perfumery, it has a beautiful, opulently rich, and very velvety quality to it, a sensuously golden warmth, and a bouquet that smells salty, marshy, and musky. Those facets have an almost vegetal undertone and a subtle smokiness as well. To me, ambergris frequently smells of all those things combined, but it’s redolent of caramel laced with salt and musk above all else. But if this is how it smells in a perfume bottle, it’s because only a small quantity has been used and it’s been heavily diluted. How ambergris smells like in nature and originally is quite a different matter. And it’s all because of where it comes from….
I want to spend some time on that because I think it’s fascinating, incredibly cool, and, more importantly, significant to some of ambergris’ olfactory nuances, but I don’t want you to be put off while I go through its history, origins, and source. Please, I beg of you, try to remember that where it comes from and what it smells like in nature are not how it smells when used in fragrances!
Our understanding of ambergris has changed widely over the centuries and even in recent times. In modern times and until only a few years ago, most people thought that it was derived from whale vomit. That has proven to be false. It turns out that it comes from the other end of the animal…. (Ahem.)
The definitive guide on ambergris, its history, and attributes is undoubtedly the book by Christopher Kemp: Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris (2012). Some parts of his book have been summarized in the most basic, elemental form in a great article from Atlas Obscura that I’ll quote extensively instead, not only because it is more accessible to you, the reader, but also, selfishly, because it will save me typing time. The title of the Atlas Obscura succinctly sums up the true source of ambergris: “A Highly Prized Slurry of Squid Beaks and Whale Feces.” (Please don’t recoil and, please, remember again, this is not how it smells in actual fragrances!)
Kemp’s book and the article summarizing it are fascinating and greatly added to my knowledge beyond the rough basics I had previously known, like the fact that references to ambergris dated back to ancient times, that the Ancient Egyptians burnt it as incense, that King Henry II of England mixed it with eggs for his morning omelet, and that Marie-Antoinette dunked some in her hot chocolate. Kemp/Atlas Obscura go much further with details that this history nerd found to be utterly riveting:
Arabians used specially trained camels to search for it. The Ming Dynasty imported it from Sri Lanka and Africa, along with gems and spices. In the early 15th century, Henry V carried it in a golden ball at Agincourt. Nostradamus and many others believed it increased male potency. Casanova added it to chocolate mousse. Some courtiers thought Charles II of England was poisoned by his favorite meal of eggs and ambergris [….]
As for its mysterious origin, the Chinese thought ambergris was dragon spit that had fallen into the ocean and hardened. Some people believed it was yellow amber, seabird poop, or marine fungus. An Englishman affirmed that it was “nothing but honeycombs that bees make upon the large rocks, which are on the seaside of the Indies, which heated by the sun, loosen and fall into the sea.”
Specially trained, sniffing camels! Potentially hiding poison in a gourmand ambergris meal to poison off a king! Casanova and his aphrodisiac love potions. And dragon drool! Seriously, how cool is all that?!!
Apparently, it was not until 1724 that a Boston physician called Zabdiel Boylston finally uncovered the truth, that ambergris was a substance from the bowels of the sperm whale. In modern times, it was thought that the whale had vomited some sort of secretion which then floated along the ocean, hardening and absorbing the various olfactory facets of its surroundings.
Christopher Kemp’s ground-breaking 2012 book dispelled that misconception as well. In reality, it’s poo, not vomit that is involved — and the triggering stimulus is the interplay between a leaky sphincter and the jagged beaks of a squid. Atlas Obscura quotes Kemp as follows:
ambergris is formed when the indigestible remnants of the sperm whale’s favorite meal — squid– meets up with a malfunctioning, leaky sphincter between the last of the whale’s four stomachs and its intestine:
Curved like a parrot’s beak, the squids’ [indigestible] beaks pass from the stomach, chafing and irritating the delicate intestinal lining on the way. As a growing mass, they are pushed farther along the intestines and become a tangled indigestible solid, saturated with feces, which begins to obstruct the rectum. It also acts as a dam. Feces builds up behind it. The whale’s gastrointestinal system responds by increasing water absorption from the lower intestines, and gradually the feces saturating the compacted mass of squid beaks becomes like cement, binding the slurry together permanently. It becomes a concentration- a smooth and striated boulder.
This entire process is a rare one. Kemp says it only occurs in one percent of the world’s 350,000 sperm whales, so 3,500 out of 350,000. But finding those pieces is not easy. The ambergris must either wash up on a beach somewhere, be removed from the body of a dead whale, or float up from its carcass and, again, wash up on shore. The narrow set of circumstances that applies to all this — from rare leaky sphincters to discovery on land — makes the finding of ambergris atypical and, as a result, makes its market price extremely high. Apparently, at one point, it was three times the price of gold.
I’m assuming that figure applies to the top grade of ambergris because there are, in reality, several different types and each one has a different quality and scent. There are white, beige-ish, grey, brown, gold, and black shades of ambergris. The rarest, most prized, and high-end sort is the white grade. It has the sweetest, softest aroma because it’s essentially been in the sea for the longest amount of time and its aroma has therefore been softened, diluted, purified of its truly hardcore skanky, raunchy, fecal and leathery origins. There is almost a light floral subtext to it, in addition to earthiness, saltiness, muskiness, and golden sweetness. The lowest grade is the darkest, black ambergris. It is the most animalic, tarry, leathery, and, yes, apparently, it’s the most poo-like as well. I’ve smelt the white-grey sorts, never the other shades, so I can’t speak to their aroma myself but they basically get stinkier as they go down the chain.
The scarcity, cost, and difficulty of obtaining ambergris means that its real, natural form is not widespread in perfumery. Most brands simply cannot afford it if they wish to make money, and that is especially true of the big commercial houses who want to have the lowest cost of production and the highest profit margins. So, they turn to synthetics instead. Ambrox (Ambroxan or Ambroxide) is merely one in a list of options but, to me, none of them smell like real ambergris. The lone exception is Synarome‘s Ambrarome Absolu which is primarily a natural mix with apparently only the smallest synthetic component and which is derived, oddly enough, from the labdanum cistus plant. Ambrarome Absolu has a real ambergris scent, though stronger, more animalic, and muskier, and more leathery than what I’ve smelt in most ambergris-centric fragrances.
One of the very few perfume houses to use real ambergris is an indie, artisanal one, Sultan Pasha Attars. He uses it in almost all his attars, and he recently bought some fantastic pieces from an ambergris dealer with whom he kindly put me in touch. Patrick Lillis of Celtic Ambergris (website and Facebook page) generously took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me via email about the scent of ambergris and to send me a lot of fantastic photos, including a few which show the squid beaks that I’ve become strangely obsessed about over the last few days.
It is incredibly rare to see photos of actual ambergris in all its varieties, either with all its funky impurities or else so purified that it’s the very highest grade possible, so I’d like to share several of them with you. You can click on each image below to open it up in full size in a separate window in order to observe its details, and I’ve added any applicable comments or descriptions from Mr. Lillis (or me) to the caption:
It’s not typical to have so many pieces of large, high-end white amber, particularly in the sorts of sizes shown on Celtic Ambergris’ Instagram page or collection page, but the company’s location in Ireland seems to help. According to Mr. Lillis, by the time the ambergris floats from the Caribbean or the Indies all the way up to Ireland via the North Atlantic Drift, the ambergris has changed and there’s been a significant impact on its scent:
The time taken for the ambergris to reach our shores on its winding odyssey from the Caribbean has a major influence on its scent development: the wild and storm-tossed ocean, the strength of tropical sun, the variations in temperature and salinity encountered, the flora and fauna that it mixes with in the upper levels of the water column all play a role in the development of its scent profile, whether awful rotting fish oil with a splash of dung, to tobacco, incense, old books, ancient building or just indescribable beauty.
Mr. Lillis also spoke at length about the scent differences between the various grades, and, since it’s so rare to have an actual ambergris specialist and expert to speak with one, I wanted to share his comments in full:
The variation in the colour presentation of Ambergris is also very interesting. A black piece can be either astoundingly awful in scent or astoundingly beautiful in scent, again in all likelihood due to the time spent as a free floating mass of excreted Ambergris in the salty oceanic environment, or the time it spent ashore entombed in a sand dune for decades or longer. To me, the evidence tends to show that, the longer the piece spends at sea, the whiter and finer it gets. Yet, the finer scent will still get expressed as the chemical changes, forming its finer smelling compounds, and that continues even when a dark piece is entombed ashore. Pieces have been found sticking out of dunes with the exposed faces being sparkling white (sun bleached) and the hidden surface a light grey, and with a scent that would swoon an army.
You can also find white pieces with a thick white crust and an absolutely awful scent, I think very strong tropical sun and high salinity are at play here, but for only a short time. There are pieces that are waxy and dense, that don’t have fissures for seawater ingress (quite dungy in scent) and they generally remain very homogeneous in presentation (not much layering) have the same colouring and scent all the way through and don’t lose very much weight when they come ashore, then there are pieces that are saturated with water due to fissures and these ones seem to be the very finest when and if they make it ashore, they readily lose weight and are the picture of beauty to the nose.
Now, again, all of this applies to ambergris in its natural state, and you can be virtually assured that ambergris in your bottle of perfume won’t smell like “rotting fish oil,” squid, or whale poo. The material is too heavily diluted for anything close to that. If you want to smell the true beauty of ambergris in perfume form, in almost entirely solo fashion and in all its fantastic salty, marshy, quietly smoky, caramel-scented sweetness and sexy muskiness, then the gold standard for the genre is Profumum Roma‘s decadent, opulent Ambra Aurea. It’s hardly the only ambergris perfume that will be on my list, as you will see next time in Part II, but it is the very best and the very richest, so I wanted to mention it here for any of you who may have recoiled after all this whale talk.
Part II will cover fragrances in almost all the genres discussed today, except for the fossilized amber one. It’s going to take me time to compile, though, because I want to go over all my past reviews (probably amounting to more than 100,000 words) in order to select the fragrances that I think are the best or the most reflective of their genre, and to make the guide as comprehensive as possible. But I shall have O Hira, Ambra Aurea, Mitzah, and others to keep me company, so I shall be in good stead. I hope you go and put on your favourite “amber” after reading this as well. See you next time, and keep smelling golden!