Sexy, smoky, and snarling, Ambra Nera is a gritty, punk rock amber that is simply gorgeous. It is a compulsively sniffable parfum from the ancient Italian house of Farmacia SS. Annunziata dal 1561, and is far more than the “black amber” that its name implies. Rich woods, spicy patchouli, incense, sticky balsamic resins, animalic warmth, and earthiness are all cocooned in musky ambergris in a way that feels like amber with an edge. While its essence can be over-simplified down to patchouli-amber-woods, Ambra Nera leaves fragrances like Ambra Aurea or Jovoy‘s Psychedelique in the dust of their golden palaces, where aristocrats lounge near fireplaces sipping cognac. Instead, it chooses to get on its Harley-Davidson, snarling in black leather like Iggy Pop, Billy Idol, or the Ramones, and zooms off singing “with a rebel yell, more, more, more.” It’s a fantastic, unexpected surprise, and a fragrance that lovers of hardcore amber-patchoulis must try.
Farmacia SS. Annunziata dal 1561 is an Italian brand with a long history, and its unpretentious, high-quality, beautifully rich fragrances are hugely under-rated, in my opinion. Most are really extraits in concentration, and tend to focus on one note which is then amplified to great depth. Ambra Nera is a little different than others I’ve tried from the line, as it has more layers and complexity than some of its siblings, but it bears the overall Farmacia aesthetic and made me do a double-take from first sniff. If it weren’t for the size of the bottle, I would have bought Ambra Nera for myself right away.
Ambra Nera is a concentrated parfum or extrait that Farmacia SS. Annunziata describes in very simple terms:
Precious and rare aroma. A light and exotic fragrance, with the spirit warm and determinated. The mysterious charm adds a touch of elegance and class.
Top notes: CYPRESS, EUCALYPTUS
Heart notes: AMBER, BENZOIN, VETIVER
Base notes: VANILLA, PATCHOULY
I suspect that there is a lot more going on than that. My feeling is that Ambra Nera includes a hefty dose of smoky styrax resin, some actual incense, and decent amounts of both Tolu balsam and animalic castoreum. I’ve noticed that some perfume houses, especially some Italian ones like Profumum, prefer to merely give a nutshell synopsis for their perfume lists, and I felt that the Farmacia’s note list for its Vaniglia del Madagascar was also incomplete. In short, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if that were the case with Ambra Nera as well.
Ambra Nera opens on my skin with lightly boozy, honeyed woods enveloped in amber, but its nuances develop within seconds. There are the toffee’d, dark, dirty layers of labdanum, and the musky, marshy, slightly salty caramel of ambergris, both feeling a little wild and animalic. It is a mix that feels like it skews 80% ambergris, with only 20% comprised of labdanum. Heavy smokiness follows on their heels, along with the spicy woodiness of true, brown patchouli, and the aromatic, slightly green dryness of cedar. For the most part, though, Ambra Nera’s opening is wave upon wave of multi-faceted, woody goldenness which drenches your skin in a very potent cloud, though it is light in weight and almost sheer for such richness.
Ambra Nera’s smokiness grows stronger, but it doesn’t feel purely like incense. It is almost as though the vetiver were some sort of bourbonized relative to the tarry variety found in such fragrances as Oriza’s Vetiver Royal Bourbon. At the same time, the red-brown patchouli turns darker, slightly dirtier, and surges to the forefront next to the woods and amber. It adds a spiciness to the notes, but even more so, a dark, earthy grit that skews a little black, as well as a subtle earthiness.
Less than 10 minutes in, other notes arrive on the scene. First there is the eucalyptus. It’s not really like the usual menthol or muscle rub tonality, though there is a tinge of camphor deep in its depths. Rather, its real job is to provide yet another layer of earthy, green woodiness that accentuates or amplifies the other notes. To a large extent, it feels more like a suggestion that wafts in and out of the edges, a sense of the actual eucalyptus tree as much as its fresh, herbal leaves. Even more subtle and muffled is the tiny, minute streak of a dark, bitter chocolate — almost more like expresso — that emanates from the patchouli.
It’s odd to me how that element is the final thing on the note list, because Ambra Nera feels wholly like an woody-patchouli duet to me, one which merely happens to sing in front of an accompanying chorus of amber and dark resins. Actually, the patchouli really feels like the star of the show quite a bit of the times, and it is something that comes as a little bit of a surprise given the perfume’s name. I’ve noticed that the note is often accompanied by vetiver, cedar, and amber in classic French perfumery, essentially amounting to a Holy Quad for patchouli soliflores. Here, the balance isn’t skewed quite so overtly towards any one element, but Ambra Nera often seems like a scent that is 35% patchouli, 30% woods, 20% smoky resins/incense, and only 15% amber.
The end result is a fragrance that feels like the unshaven, rock-n-roll biker cousin to Jovoy’s smooth, cognac-sipping aristocrat in Psychedelique, or a blackened, earthy, hippie version of the ambergris emperor in Profumum’s Ambra Aurea. This feisty wild-child isn’t exactly a dirty, 1970s Bohemian, but he’s definitely got grit and a snarling growl in a way that far exceeds both the traditional ambers and the usual boozy patchoulis. Its due to a strong sense of rawness and darkness underlying the supposed main ingredient, an earthy funk mixed with damn sexy muskiness — all wrapped up with hardcore hippie smokiness. The note list may not mention it, but I think there is definite frankincense in Ambra Nera, along with castoreum and hefty amounts of smoky styrax.
The various woody facets, including those from the patchouli, grow stronger after 30 minutes, overtaking the amber to become Ambra Nera’s dominant focus. The wood smells more like cedar than cypress to me, but I freely admit that I’m not an expert on the nuances of the later. All I know is that the combination of the woods with the patchouli smells simultaneously: spicy, smoky, lightly honeyed, lightly mentholated, brown, black, and earthy. Every single part of them is cocooned in musky, slightly dirty, animalic warmth. In the base, there is a growing streak of some black tarriness which profoundly resembles styrax mixed with Tolu balsam. As it grows more powerful, the incense, animalic nuances, and eucalyptus raise their voices higher in chorus, leading to a groundswell of golden-black darkness.
And that’s when it hits me. That’s when I suddenly realized why I had such an immediate, visceral response to Ambra Nera in its opening hours: it has a definite (though temporary) resemblance to the magnificent O Hira from SHL 777, a fragrance I adore but whose $825 price tag for a mere 50 ml is enough to give one palpitations. There are substantial differences, however, differences which mean that Ambra Nera is not a close match for O Hira, but more like a second cousin, once removed. For example, Ambra Nera is dominated by woods, followed by patchouli, or vice-versa. In O Hira, the one-two punch comes from labdanum, followed by still more labdanum. To the extent that there is an ambered focus in the Farmacia SS. Annunziata scent, it feels primarily like ambergris which has a very different character than labdanum. In addition, the patchouli in Ambra Nera is a thousand times more prominent than anything in O Hira, to the point where it sometimes overshadows the other elements. That is never the case with the SHL 777 fragrance. Not once would I ever think to describe O Hira as a patchouli-woody scent, the way I sometimes would Ambra Nera. It is labdanum on steroids, above all else.
As a whole, O Hira feels more baroque, complex, and subtly nuanced. While it also has castoreum, styrax, and Tolu balsam, it is substantially more balsamic, heavily resinous, and animalic. All those aspects are quite subtle and soft in Ambra Nera, comparatively speaking. Finally, while both scents are essentially parfum extraits, O Hira has far greater density and opaqueness than the sheerer, lighter Italian fragrance. The greatest difference perhaps is that O Hira costs about $650 more than Ambra Nera, which is a rather staggering gap.
Yet, for all those differences, there is a strong, direct connection between these two scents that becomes even more noticeable as the first hour ends and the second begins. Ambra Nera turns even smokier, as the feisty, smoky styrax and the sticky blackened balsams surge past the amber to coat the patchouli and woods. An abstract spiciness, honeyed sweetness, medicinal hints of eucalyptus, and a subtle dusky, earthiness complete the picture. In addition, I would swear that there was also a light touch of castoreum in the base, in large part because of the musky, almost leathery streak that runs through the golden, velvety warmth.
Ambra Nera doesn’t really change from this point forth. Some of the notes fluctuate in their prominence or strength, and there is a constant race between the patchouli and the woods for first place, but the scent is generally a linear one on my skin. It essentially continues as a seamless blend of smoky woods and spicy, dirty patchouli atop blackened resins and then nestled within a cocoon of musky, animalic amber, all the way in one straight line until its very end. The only real change is that a layer of benzoin vanilla appears in the base, softening the dirtiness, and creating more of a cuddly, cozy feel. For the most part, though, it is a very subtle, thin touch which doesn’t really detract from the core notes.
Generally, Ambra Nera lasts between 12.5 and 14 hours on me, depending on amount. It is less than what I had expected in light of Vaniglia del Madagascar‘s monster longevity on my skin. As for the sillage, it starts off as soft, but then turns discreet with surprising rapidity. Using 2 large smears, Ambra Nera hovered just barely above the skin 1.75 hours into its development. It stayed there for hours on end, not turning into a true skin scent until the middle of the 8th hour, though it still didn’t take much effort to detect if you brought your nose right to your skin. Spraying and aerosolisation may increase the initial projection, but I have the sense that Farmacia SS. Annunziata seems to prefer more intimate sillage as a general aesthetic choice.
The odd thing is the contradiction between Ambra Nera’s feel versus its weight. This is a fragrance whose notes are enormously rich and lush, but simultaneously also sheer, even from the start. Ambra Nera isn’t gauzy, but for a scent with such heavy notes, it is extremely light. I don’t know how Farmacia SS. Annunziata has managed to come up with a scent that is so potent and concentrated, while also being airy, but it has. Ambra Nera feels like sort of oriental that would be perfect to wear in the heat of summer without feeling drenched in unctuous thickness. (Personally, I think rich orientals bloom in the heat and wear them all year round, but I know many people think I’m off my rocker.)
To be honest, the discreet lightness is one of my few issues with Ambra Nera. I am blown away by the beauty of its notes, both in the first hour when the ambergris is almost as prominent as the woods or patchouli, and later when the fragrance is more smoky and animalic. However, the sheerness and soft sillage happen a little too fast for my liking. Still, I would buy a bottle of Ambra Nera in a heartbeat if it weren’t for one thing and only one thing: the size of the bottle. I doubt I could live long enough to go through 100 ml of such a massively concentrated, rich fragrance. Not unless I had two lifetimes. Ambra Nera may not have the completely untrammeled, over-the-top ferocity of its hardcore brother, Patchouly Indonesiano, but it feels substantially more potent, concentrated, and intense than Vaniglia del Madagascar. (Oddly, though, Vaniglia proved to have completely monster longevity on my skin.) Still, I don’t know who on earth could possibly finish a full bottle of Ambra Nera, and I wish the company would offer more practical sizing. On the other hand, the price is wonderful at $160, so the fragrance is a perfect subject for friends to split.
For all that I love it, Ambra Nera is definitely not for everyone. I would recommend it only to a true patch-head or to those who don’t mind a little funk in their scents, because I think the Ambra Nera does skew a little dirty. From what I’ve read on a few places, that may be why some women think it is too masculine or earthy for their tastes. For example, on Fragrantica, one woman writes:
I like male perfumes a lot…but this one is too masculine; an old male hippy who had too much woman and drugs and pretend to know what love is ( for himself), maybe you know that kind of type.
On Luckyscent, a handful of people find Ambra Nera to be powdery in nature in its drydown, which came as quite a surprise to me, while one person struggled with the issue of the earthy woods, comparing Ambra Nera to the scent of an old souvenir shop in Aspen. I think his or her point is actually a fair one, because I can see how the patchouli-wood combination would lead to that impression. As I said before, I think you have to be a true patch-head to really love Ambra Nera because its underlying earthy muskiness may not be for everyone.
One Fragrantica reviewer, “Kain,” wrote an astute summation for Ambra Nera. He not only discusses the castoreum and the animalic undertones that you might expect, but also mentions that he found Ambra Nera to be a “beast” in terms of projection, which was good to hear. He writes, in part:
This is a great and very complex amber based fragrance. [¶] Right after first spray you will get hit by heavy blast of bitter resinous amber and honey! [¶] It’s a very warm, sweet and bitter resinous smell which is very sensual and yummy! [¶] I can smell a soft fruity scent, something like cherry in the background as well but it’s not up in front and easy to detect.
As time passes, that faint fruity cherry smell goes away and now I can smell a soft animalic feeling beside the sweetness of honey and amber. [¶] The animalic smell is mellow and I believe it’s because of castoreum note which isn’t listed here anyway! [¶] It’s a soft buttery and dirty animalic feeling that gives the scent a beautiful aroma. it’s not stinky and sweaty like musk and it’s not very heavy something like civet! very easy to wear and like animalic note.
In the base the sweet amber change more into vanilla type of sweetness. that animalic feeling still does exist and now I can smell some sort of bitter smoky aroma. I don’t know if there is leather note in this fragrance or it’s vetiver that gives us that smoky feeling but anyway it’s detectable in the scent. […][¶]
Projection is very heavy (beast mode!) and longevity is 10+ hours easy. with two sprays (max 3 sprays) you’re good all day long.
“Alfarom” is a commentator whom I quote often, as I think he’s very talented, and he describes Ambra Nera as “GORGEOUS stuff” (in all caps) with an ancient, nocturnal darkness:
This is GORGEOUS stuff if you like dark-green herbal ambers. Great balance between challenging vegetal notes (almost animalic) and resinous woody amber (as opposed to woodyamber). Thick but not heavy, moderately sweet, enveloping but not loud and, most of all, far from the typical head-shop vibe of many fragrances playng similar themes…Last but not least, it comes in Parfum strength.
Smells ancient, dark, mouldy, nocturnal and absolutely compelling. This is to amber-centered fragrances, what Mazzolari Lui is to patchouli.
Top quality stuff.
One man said he was “hypnotized” by the “majestic” Ambra Nera which he called a “masterpiece,” but there was a “medieval” “moldiness” (again from the patchouli, if you ask me) that was ultimately too much for him:
Outstanding, non-sweet, herbal masculine amber, it smells Medieval and moldy in the best possible way: it is the most authentic smell of a very, very old library in an ancient Western European monastery.
The “mold” I am talking about smells like mushrooms, yes, I do mean it, but, surprisingly enough, it’s a wonderful smell and it blends lovely with the skin… No rot here, just big, old, musty folios all over.
Gosh, I feel hypnotized by this perfume. It has a a very “elevated”, almost majestic feel, it smells like history.
I would not wear it on my skin, it does not smell like a perfume, it’s just too charged with stories to wear it often. Definitely a masterpiece.
For The Scented Hound, Ambra Nera rated a 5 out of 5 bones, and his short review reads:
I love amber perfumes. I love their warmth, their other-worldliness and their ability to envelope. Ambra Nera is no exception. Upon application, this opens with a strong pop of cypress and eucalyptus and a slight sweetness. From the start, this is a scent that says, “here I am.” After a little while the vanilla comes out along with a light powdery finish. This is an elegant amber that transports your back in time to the Italian Renaissance. I have to say that my husband said that it makes me smell like someone’s grandmother. That comment had me worried that the scent was too feminine. I realize that everybody has their opinion, but from my end, I absolutely love this scent and the way it made me feel and how it wore on me. This is a unisex scent that has a light sweetness about it that could lean a bit feminine, but if you’re not afraid of unisex scents and embracing your feminine side, I highly recommend this perfume because it is truly a beautiful composition.
I found Ambra Nera to have too much of a punkish snarl on my skin to lean feminine or feel medieval, but I agree with Mr. Hound that it is a “beautiful” scent. Really and truly beautiful.
I appreciate its refined smoothness, unpretentious nature, and effortless fluidity, but, ultimately, what I like the most about Ambra Nera is how its warmth goes beyond mere amber. Yes, its multi-faceted richness is fantastic, but it’s that animalic growl and smokiness which really render the scent “hypnotic.” Forget medieval monasteries or the Renaissance. If you ask me, this is totally a punk rock, rebellious amber, and someone should get Billy Idol a bottle for the midnight hour.