Both amber and ambergris are luxurious base notes in perfume invoking a feeling of opulence and warmth, but they are different and they enrich scents in their own unique ways. So what are they?
AMBER perfume today is an olfactory note or concept created by a combination of ingredients.
This fragrant blend often characterized by warm, resinous, and slightly sweet notes. It doesn’t contain actual amber but rather combines ingredients to create a rich, earthy scent. It’s known for its longevity and sensuous, oriental allure, making it a popular choice in perfumery.
While AMBERGRIS (sometimes referred to as ambergrease, or grey amber) is discovered floating on the surface of the sea, its origin a mystery for centuries. It was discovered that ambergris is a natural substance that’s produced and regurgitated by whales, that, remarkably, it has a surprisingly enchanting odour.
SO WHAT ACTUALLY IS AMBER?
Amber is one of the mysteries of the perfume world for many people. Historically AMBER resin produced from trees (which turns into the gemstone when left to solidify) was harvested and used in perfumery, but today it is more of an abstract concept than a single ingredient.
It isn’t made from Amber gemstone, it is a ‘fantasy scent’ and is sometimes considered a sensory representation of the warm, glowing stone with which it shares its name.
It’s typically a blend of three different ingredients:
- vanilla, for its sweet and velvety spice;
- benzoin for a soft resin aroma;
- and labdanum for a woody warmth
Together, these create a rich tapestry that is sweet, spicy, and exotic, evocative of grandeur and luxury. It’s a warm and spicy aroma that wraps you up and can instantly transport you to distant memories. What makes it so special is the difficulty to immediately identify amber. Unlike, say, sandalwood or coconut, which are instantly recognisable ingredients, amber presents a feeling of exoticism and richness. Amber has the power to evoke a sense of emotional comfort and warmth and a valuable addition to any perfumes aiming for a rich, spicy scent profile.
Despite its striking scent profile, amber is surprisingly versatile. It can be paired with everything from florals to spices, and pulls them in different directions. As a base note, amber can raise a perfume to a more luxurious altitude.
History of Amber
True natural amber takes millions of years to form, lending to its kinship with the high-quality, luxury perfume note.
Some cinephiles may associate amber with the orangey-brown gemstone made famous by Jurassic Park. It’s a brilliant stone, with deep and mesmerising layers that tells ancient stories from trapped DNA.
Amber, in its purest form, is a sticky, resin produced by trees. If left to solidify, it becomes the gemstone amber. Ancient perfumers would harvest the resin from the trees, then mix it with a carrier ingredient to make a distinct and unique scent.
Scent connoisseurs differentiate between the various forms of amber that are naturally produced across the globe. Egyptian-sourced amber is often sweet and musky, while amber from Tunisia is far more spicy and heady.
In the 19th century, perfume developers identified amber fragrance as its own olfactory genre –– which is why today we describe a family of scents as ‘amber.’
WHAT IS AMBERGRIS?
Unlike amber, ambergris is an ingredient, although it’s not just any scent. It is highly valuable and revered thanks to its rarity and unusual source.
First discovered washed up on a beach in England, Ambergris is a grey sometimes black solid, waxy, flammable substance found in the digestive tract of sperm whales. That might sound like an unlikely origin of one of the world’s most prized perfume ingredients, but some of the best things are rare and unusual.
What makes this substance so special? Also known as floating gold, ambergris is hard to describe because it is so multi-faceted and complex. It’s musty and woody, like the smell of an old church, while simultaneously faintly exotic and smoky like a Middle-Eastern marketplace.
As a base note, ambergris can add a wonderful third dimension to other scents, particularly florals, making for a striking and memorable fragrance. Ambergris is a wonderful fixative that enhances a perfume’s staying power on the skin.
The scent of ambergris has been revered by seafarers for centuries. Renowned author Herman Melville in Moby Dick recalled “the faint stream of perfume” from a dead whale.
While it has been used by humans for more than 1,000 years – in oils and incense – ambergris’ origin wasn’t discovered until the 18th century thanks to commercial whaling practices.
“Ambergris: humid, earthy, faecal, marine, algoid, tobacco-like, sandalwood-like, sweet, animal, musky and radiant.”Chemist Gunther Ohloff
HOW IS AMBERGRIS HARVESTED?
Most natural ambergris is found by beachcombers in Africa and the UK. It’s a lucrative business; a tiny 25gm worth over $700.
Many countries have outlawed the harvesting of ambergris in order to protect endangered whale species. Wild ambergris is incredibly rare and difficult to come by, so many fragrances have introduced synthetic ambergris into their perfumes.
While many perfume aficionados prefer natural ingredients, sometimes synthetic ambergris is better. The scent can be controlled to ensure it balances perfectly with the other notes in a perfume whilst also offering consistency and sustainability.
WHAT PERFUMES USE AMBER & AMBERGRIS?
Amber is used in a variety of perfumes for a reason –– it has an ephemeral quality that elevates any other scents paired with it.
Meanwhile, ambergris will be adored by anyone who loves complex scents that linger on the skin. Ambergris plays on the same part of the human brain as pheromones, explaining why we find the aroma so intoxicating.
To find out more about ambergris read the Natural History Museum article What is ambergris? By Emily Osterloff.