Amber, ambergris, ambreine, Ambroxan, Ambrox…. These terms found in fragrance descriptions are often among the most confusing, since the only amber most of us know is the fossilized resin with no scent whatsoever. In perfumery, the amber fragrance family is among the most important. As a perfumery student, like many of my colleagues, the first fragrance accord I learned to make was amber, a dark, voluptuous abstract composition. Since the topic of amber in fragrances is a large one, I decided to break it up into two posts. In the first of the “Amber Perfume Notes” articles, I will talk of ambergris. The second part talks about the sweet amber, which is usually based on labdanum.
Precious perfume materials like oud, sandalwood, musk, and rose are surrounded by much mystery and lore, but none is more so than ambergris. Even in ancient times, it was a highly valued material, very much sought after for its medicinal, aphrodisiac and fragrant properties. Meaning “grey amber” in French, ambergris looks like dark grey or black lumps. The touch of a warm hand releases its unique fragrance—sweet, musky, warm, with a salty facet of seaweed and cured tobacco leaf. The most unusual aspect of ambergris is its unique radiance and tenacity. While the scent itself is not heavy or overwhelming, the sillage of ambergris is one of the most extraordinary.
The irony is that such a beautiful fragrance comes from what is essentially a sperm whale’s version of a hairball. Some species of sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus, are susceptible to a digestive track irritation caused by their diet of squid. Squid beaks and other indigestible parts cause the whale to produce a substance which it periodically excreted along with the offending matter. Directly from whale’s stomach, the sticky black matter is quite rank, but after aging by the sun and ocean, it acquires an ineffable salty-musky aroma.
Since ambergris is derived from animals, naturally a question of ethics arises, and in the case of ambergris, it is very important to consider. Sperm whales are endangered species, whose populations started to decline as far back as the 19th century due to the high demand for their highly emollient oil, and today their stocks still have not recovered. Although top quality ambergris is the regurgitated substance, a waste produced by the whale, the matter can also be obtained from a whale’s stomach and then transformed into ambergris. Unfortunately, for an average consumer it is difficult to tell what ambergris they are getting: naturally found or illegally harvested.
In the US, the status of ambergris is somewhat vague–the importation of marine mammal products in the USA has been banned since 1972, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES); however, ambergris is not mentioned directly. Many marine researchers are concerned that even the trade in naturally found ambergris can be harmful by creating further incentives to hunt whales for this valuable substance. As a fragrance consumer, you can assume that there is no natural ambergris in your perfume bottle, unless the company advertises this fact and unless you own vintage fragrances created before the 1980s. Ambergris is extremely rare and expensive, and big fragrance suppliers that make most of the fragrances on the market today do not deal in it for reasons of cost, availability and murky legal issues.
Although the natural substance has a radiance and subtlety that is difficult to approximate, there are a number of interesting synthetic replacements. Ambrox (or ambroxan), Cetalox, Grisalva, and ambreine are only a few of the modern ambergris notes, besides the various other single and compound notes that figure in fragrances descriptions as crystalline amber, crisp amber, solar amber, etc. Ambroxan is a musky-woody, sweet note, with an interesting quality that oscillates between crisp and velvety. Its effect can be felt in Frederic Malle Géranium pour Monsieur and Portrait of a Lady, Robert Piguet Calypso, Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, and Lancôme Mille et Une Rôse. Ambrein (ambreine), a chief component of ambergris, is a sweet, warm, persistent note with tobacco and caramel accents. It is widely used in accords with woods, musks and other animalic notes to give an opulent, seductive facet. Some examples include Caron Infini, Parfum d’Empire Ambre Russe, Annick Goutal Quel Amour and Jean-Paul Gaultier Classique.
Finally, I would like to mention three fragrances that to me capture the elusive sweet and salty richness of ambergris. They are fantasies, created by perfumers through a careful balancing of notes. Rich and transparent are fragrance terms that rarely exist side by side, but Christian Dior Dune juxtaposes citrus freshness with the sweet darkness of amber, moss and patchouli. There is a salty marine note that courses through Dune’s structure and suggests an ambergris impression. Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan creates an ambergris illusion through its interplay of musk, civet and salty skin. It is rich and dark, with a velvety drydown that is simultaneously seductive, caressing and haunting. Hermès Eau des Merveilles is my favorite ambergris fantasy—a radiant etude of bleached woods, salty sand and dried seaweed tendrils. Wearing it is like stepping into a Cézanne’s painting of a winter beach; you can almost feel the chilly salty breeze on your skin.
Photograph: ambergris lump