Amber and Sweet Labdanum : Perfume Notes

Amber1

The classical amber in perfumery is a sweet, rich accord of labdanum and vanilla. In contrast to the marine and animalic ambergris, it is a pure fantasy accord like fougère or chypre, and despite the fact that its name evokes the fabled material, ambergris, it does not attempt to reproduce this animalic marine scent. Perfumery amber is so called, because the golden color of the blend resembles the semi-precious amber jewel. Sweet and voluptuous, perfumery amber is quite versatile, and whenever one encounters a fragrance named Amber or Ambre, it is likely to be a warm, vanilla and labdanum based blend.

Labdanum, a resinous material obtained from the Mediterranean species of rockrose (Cistus ladanifer or Cistus creticus,) smells rich, leathery, smoky and sweet. Its warm incense undertone lends it a dusky, somber quality, while the top notes reminiscent of freshly cut wood offer an interesting bright counterpoint. Although a beautiful and complex material, it is heavy and opaque, with a tendency to easily overwhelm other facets of the fragrance. Yet, rounded out with vanilla and other sweet woody notes, labdanum based accords become radiant and sensual. While it is not the only material around which to create an amber note, it is one of the most classical.

An example of such a distinctive and famous accord is De Laire Ambré 83, a specialty base built around labdanum and vanilla. De Laire was an outfit devoted to making fragrances, but it was their unique and distinctive accords that made them much more famous (such as Mousse de Saxe found in many Caron fragrances.) Ambré 83 can be found in many legendary fragrances, from Coty to Guerlain. Guerlain Mitsouko relies on it to lend its base an autumnal golden glow, while in Chanel Bois des Îles, sweet amber softens the dry woods. Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan is a modern example of this classical idea, and its bold composition can be considered a gold standard for sweet labdanum based ambers.  Another interesting recent amber perfume is Christian Dior Mitzah, in which the traditional Ambré 83 sensuality is interpreted in an airy, luminous manner.

Besides serving as a main accord, sweet amber is frequently used in oriental accords and floral compositions to accent their voluptuous quality. It is also essential for the classical chypre and fougère compositions, where it forms a beautiful marriage with musk and oakmoss. Caron Pour Un Homme is a great example of how a touch of warm amber can play up the velvety sweetness of lavender. At the same time, crisp, dry ambers like Ambroxan and its ilk are becoming far more common, as they offer a more transparent, brighter quality appreciated in today’s perfumery.

In niche fragrances, on the other hand, the classical ambers have seen quite a revival. It pairs beautifully with incense notes, which also serve as an important effect in a niche perfumer’s palette.  Tom Ford Amber Absolute is an essay on Ambré 83 embellished with chocolate absolute.  Annick Goutal Ambre Fétiche layers it abundantly with incense, in order to convey an opulent effect of gold brocade. This new family of dark, sweet ambers also proves that some ideas in perfumery are timeless for a reason—their abstraction allows us to fill in the blanks with our own imagination, fantasies and dreams.

Here are some other sweet amber fragrances (in order of my favorites):

Histoires de Parfums Ambre 411
Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Ambre Précieux  
Hermès Ambre Narguilé
Armani Privé Ambre Soie
Parfum d’Empire Ambre Russe
L’Artisan Fragrances L’Eau d’Ambre and Ambre Extrême
Anné Pliska
L’Occitane Ambre
Serge Lutens Rose de Nuit
I Profume di Firenzi Ambra de Nepal
Etro Ambra
E Coudray Ambre et Vanille
Lorenzo Villoresi Ambra

Photograph of amber stone that inspired perfume amber is from la-gem.com

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41 Comments

  • zazie: I’ve always been confused by the term “amber” in perfumes – I thought ambery notes were bases trying to replicate the smell of ambergris! Thank you for rectifying that.

    I like amber accords very much, as abstract smells, but they do sometimes overwhelm the compositions: as they are tenacious accords and do not evolve in time, I usually get bored very quickly by niche “amber” perfumes.
    On the other hand, it seems I love many Ambré 83 perfumes: bois des iles and mitsouko in particular. I find a similarity in the dry down also with Attrape coeur and une fleur de cassie. Do they feature Ambré 83? I think I read so about attrape coeur. These perfumes all share a soft cuddly base, that make them so appealing to me, but there is so much more going on than just a soft pillow ending. I wish the niche world took example… September 30, 2011 at 3:33am Reply

  • Andy: Yes, I always thought of ambergris when I read of amber in fragrance notes. But this makes much more sense. I guess this type of amber is more like the smell of the fragrant amber resins made in India, which often seem to be a deep, incense-woodsy-musky vanilla. It makes so much more sense to me now why so many fragrances without any animalic facets have amber in them—because it’s a completely different material! September 30, 2011 at 6:29am Reply

  • Debbie: This is a wonderful education. Thank you Victoria! September 30, 2011 at 8:23am Reply

  • nstephens@beachcroft.com: Whilst I was dimly aware that ambergris and amber were different concepts/smells I had not properly grasped the details of the difference and am very grateful for the enlightenment. Like Zazie I find the modern treatment of amber often smothers the rest of the composition especially in niche perfumes (and I would not wear any on your list for that reason even though when I smell them on others/a scent strip I like them very much).Even my beloved L’Air de Rien can turn into a huge amber which suffocates me if I try wearing her two days in a row. And I won’t even mention Le Labo Labdanum (oh dear I just did). Mitsouko, Bois des Iles and Attrape Coeur are as far as I can travel on the amber train! Thank you for a fascinating article. Nicola September 30, 2011 at 8:50am Reply

  • Victoria: Attrape Coeur definitely features Ambre 83, and as for Une Fleur de Cassie, I am not sure. I need to re-smell it. It had a very nice amber note in it, that’s what I recall.

    Labdanum is a beautiful material, but it is not that easy to use, like many other resins. September 30, 2011 at 8:51am Reply

  • Victoria: Sometimes, it is ambergris, and sometimes it is amber. Deciphering fragrance notes by reading them is a thankless task. :)
    Like you, I like those Indian ambers, which are usually labdanum or opopanax based. September 30, 2011 at 8:56am Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome, Debbie! I am glad that it is helpful! September 30, 2011 at 8:56am Reply

  • Victoria: Then, it is a good shorthand for what to avoid! :) I like ambers in all of their guises, but I admit that they can be difficult to wear. Tom Ford or Annick Goutal’s ambers, beautiful though they are, really call for a certain mood for me. September 30, 2011 at 8:58am Reply

  • Style Spy: This makes me want to pour all my ambers in a bathtub and wallow in them – and happy timing because we have a cool(ish) front passing through today. The tough part todaywill be deciding which one to spritz… September 30, 2011 at 9:14am Reply

  • green jean: thank you. and i have more fragrances to put on my to-sample list. September 30, 2011 at 9:39am Reply

  • Nick: Dear Victoria,

    Another great article.

    Do Guerlain in the case of Mitsouko or Chanel in the case of Bois Des Isles still order the De Laire base and include it in their fragrances or
    do they interpret it as an archetypal base?

    Does Tom Ford Amber Absolute use the De Laire base or is it an interpretation? September 30, 2011 at 10:00am Reply

  • Isa: I love amber, but it’s a tricky note because sometimes it gets “foody” in the drydown of some perfumes and it smells like a big pot of stewed meat and vegetables. Or maybe it’s not amber what I smell there. I would love to know what it is! I’m talking about the drydown of perfumes like L’Instant pour Homme, Laura Biagiotti Roma, Opium pour Homme, Ambre Fetiche, Kenzo Flower Oriental… They start nice or gorgeous (Ambre Fetiche) but after some minutes or half an hour, I start to get that foody scent and it ruins it all for me :(

    On the other hand, there are beautiful ambers I adore, like Histoires de Parfums Amber 411, L’Artisan Ambre Extrême, the discontinued Zara Ambar… September 30, 2011 at 10:27am Reply

  • Victoria: What a vision! :) Ambers are made for this kind of cool, autumnal weather. September 30, 2011 at 1:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome! There are so many amber focused fragrances! September 30, 2011 at 1:24pm Reply

  • Victoria: Since De Laire is no longer in operation, these bases are simply duplicated. Ambre 83 type exists commercially in numerous forms, and perfumers can make these bases too to use in their own work. It is a bigger problem for the Osmotheque–as companies stop making these old bases, and as the existing stocks dwindle, replicating old fragrances becomes difficult.

    Even Mousse de saxe name has fallen back into the public domain, and it is now owned by Pierre Guillarme of Parfumerie Generale! September 30, 2011 at 1:45pm Reply

  • Victoria: Difficult to say, as I do not get this effect myself. Maybe, you should try to find some labdanum and smell it on its own.
    Zara’s Ambar was very good! September 30, 2011 at 1:48pm Reply

  • Nikki: Great article! So informative…I love amber and am starting my fall/winter amber perfumes like Mauboussin, Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan and so on but I really would like to try Reminiscence Patchouli which has a heavy Labdanum base…but I don’t know where to buy it in the USA…Bathing in amber is quite the image, thank you! September 30, 2011 at 2:26pm Reply

  • k-amber: A good surprise. I like semi-precious amber very much, specially the color, and my “k-amber” comes from it. I was not sure it is related to amber in perfumery so closely, though I like comforting amber fragrance.

    Kaori September 30, 2011 at 9:36pm Reply

  • k-amber: Sorry ,..it was related, not it is related. Darn, I was interrupted. :(
    Kaori September 30, 2011 at 9:39pm Reply

  • sweetlife: “Perfumery amber is so called, because the golden color of the blend resembles the semi-precious amber jewel.”

    So THAT’s what it is! I cannot believe I had to wait almost six years to read that sentence. Why does no one mention this? Harrumph! Thank you, V.

    I was very much in love with labdanum in particular and amber in general when I first started exploring perfume. They had exactly the kind of rich, funky resonance that was missing from all the shrill, thin scents I’d had access to thus far. Then, all of a sudden, I was full up. Now I only like them on the dry side. I’m sure eventually I’ll come around again, though. October 1, 2011 at 4:33pm Reply

  • Nick: Thank you Victoria,

    Very interesting indeed.

    These bases now sound quite romantic when one thinks of the antiquated formulas which are now harder to replicate, but which ‘made’ some perfumes. October 2, 2011 at 3:57am Reply

  • Paeonia9: Just had to add my favorite amber to the list…Rochas Absolu. October 2, 2011 at 8:02am Reply

  • Victoria: Reminiscence Patchouli can be found at Beautyhabit. I agree, it has such a nice, rich amber note. October 2, 2011 at 2:12pm Reply

  • Victoria: I also love amber stones, and one of my favorite pieces of jewelry is a necklace of small golden ambers on a transparent string. October 2, 2011 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: :) October 2, 2011 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am not sure why this is never mentioned, maybe because it is taken for granted by the perfumers. I remember Jean-Claude Ellena writing in one of his essays that “amber” accord in perfumery is one of the first original abstract compositions. It did not try to approximate anything, but to evoke a color of exotic amber stones through its warm aroma and golden hue. October 2, 2011 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Some of these bases are so good that they could be perfumes in themselves. In fact, today they would suffice as perfumes, because our taste is for much simpler blends than was the case in the past. October 2, 2011 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, thank you! Rochas Absolu is a great amber. I love the touch of orange that gives such a delicious twist to the warm vanilla rich accord. October 2, 2011 at 2:17pm Reply

  • Robin: Someone just brought back Hemani Amber Cream for me from the Middle East….. I am totally new to thinking about perfumes and it is quite hard to describe, but it is lovely. Any ideas about what might be in it? November 28, 2011 at 9:27pm Reply

  • Robin: besides the amber, obviously November 28, 2011 at 9:27pm Reply

  • Victoria: Robin, I am not familiar with that product.  November 29, 2011 at 9:44am Reply

  • Brian: Thank you for a fascinating and captivating website. Over twenty years ago I purchased blocks of what was called “amber”. I still have them. They still have a strong scent as if they were just purchased. I do smell vanilla and other scents that I do not know how to describe. Different merchants offered “amber” in different colors, consistencies and varying scents,though similar. Any information about what I have will be appreciated. March 5, 2012 at 10:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Brian, I just saw your comment, a bit late. I’m not sure what you might have, because unless I can smell a product, it is impossible to figure out what is meant by amber. Most likely, it is a labdanum + vanilla blend. April 18, 2012 at 9:27am Reply

  • Rain Adkins: Well, of course . . THAT’S what smelled so wonderful and so maddeningly familiar in my last tiny (1″) soapstone pot of cream perfume made from Indian amber resin–it was opopanax! Thank you, I couldn’t quite place it, and it used to bug me to bits. I loved opopanax enough as a teenager to seek out a tiny vial of dilute oil of o. at a head shop and wear it by itself sometimes. You’d think I’d've known it instantly, even at 45+ years’ remove. . . .but then, they do say if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. ;-) April 18, 2012 at 1:05am Reply

    • Victoria: :)
      Doesn’t opoponax smell amazing? So warm, powdery, enveloping, with a hint of dark chocolate. April 18, 2012 at 9:29am Reply

  • Lila Das Gupta: What a great resource this blog is Victoria. Thanks for all the hard work. April 25, 2012 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Lila! :) April 26, 2012 at 10:19am Reply

  • Brian: I’ve also heard and seen benzoin and styrax as being used in classic amber accords as well. June 9, 2012 at 2:43am Reply

    • Victoria: You can definitely play with different combinations for a classical sweet amber. Our first task in the perfumery school was to create a classical amber note without using any typical amber materials or resins, and all of us were able to do this. June 9, 2012 at 4:23am Reply

  • Robert: Desperately trying to find something similar to the Zara Ambar, any ideas? December 30, 2012 at 4:29pm Reply

  • JennieG: Victoria,
    I have been reading your beautiful blog for awhile now, just love it! I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about white amber in perfumery sometime. I have Dior Pure Poison and Thierry Mugler’s Alien, both have jasmine and white amber, and I love them. I am so curious! February 21, 2014 at 8:35am Reply

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