A Guide to Amber – Part I: Types, Definitions, Materials & Scent

“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.

Fossilized amber. Source: amberpieces.com

Fossilized amber. Source: amberpieces.com

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.

THE BASICS:

“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.

FOSSILIZED AMBER:

Baltic Amber fossil with inclusions. Source: Wikipedia.

Baltic Amber fossil with inclusions. Source: Wikipedia.

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.)

Photo by AbdesSalaam attar of his Baltic "Amber Suitcase." Source: La Via del Profumo website.

Photo by AbdesSalaam attar of his Baltic “Amber Suitcase.” Source: La Via del Profumo website.

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.

Eden Botanicals amber.

Eden Botanicals amber.

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.

SHL 777's O Hira. Photo: Roberto Greco. Source: Roberto Greco.

SHL 777’s O Hira. Photo: Roberto Greco. Source: Roberto Greco.

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:

A goat whose chest and beard are covered with labdanum. Source: Labdanum Creta Blog Spot. Direct link embedded within.)

A goat whose chest and beard are covered with labdanum resin. Source: Labdanum Creta Blog Spot. Direct link embedded within.)

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.

The flowering cistus ladanifer plant from which we get labdanum. Source: dbrexportsindia.com

The flowering cistus ladanifer plant from which we get labdanum. Source: dbrexportsindia.com

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.)

Labdanum compiled into a chunk. Source: Fragrantica

Labdanum compiled into a chunk. Source: Fragrantica

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.

Mitzah. Source: Fragrantica.

Mitzah. Source: Fragrantica.

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.

Source: Amazon.

Source: Amazon.

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.

Peru Balsam, its thickly resinous oil, and where it comes from. Source: revuemag.com

Peru Balsam, its thickly resinous oil, and where it comes from. Source: revuemag.com

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.

Tolu Balsam. Source: somaluna.com

Tolu Balsam. Source: somaluna.com

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.

Source: Elle.com

Source: Elle.com

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:

"Âmes vagabondes," by Photographer Dani Olivier via his website. (Direct link embedded within.)

“Âmes vagabondes,” by Photographer Dani Olivier via his website. (Direct link embedded within.)

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.

Ambre Nuit. Source: Basenotes.

Ambre Nuit. Source: Basenotes.

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.

Source: forum.bodybuilding.com

Cuir Beluga

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:

Source: flavourfog.com

Source: flavourfog.com

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!

Source: Amazon.

Source: Amazon.

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 KempFloating 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!)

Either the god Seti or Pharaoh Ramses II burning incense. Accounts vary. Source: Pinterest.

Either the god Seti or Pharaoh Ramses II burning incense. Accounts vary. Source: Pinterest.

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?!!

Sperm whales, pooing on Tony Wu, a photo-naturist and blogger who seems to be frequently defecated up on the whales and has captured each and every image on his site. (Direct link embedded within.)

Sperm whales, pooing near Tony Wu, a photo-naturist and blogger who seems to be frequently defecated up on the whales and has captured each and every image on his site. (Direct link embedded within.)

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.

A thin, small piece of ambergris taken straight from the sea found on the beach. Not dried or in a solid lump. Source: davidherbalpharma.org

Thin pieces of ambergris taken straight from the sea found on the beach. Not dried or in a solid lump. Source: davidherbalpharma.org

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.

Different colours and grades of ambergris from the darkest and skankiest on the far left to the lightest and best sort. Source: Sultan Pasha Attars.

Different colours and grades of ambergris from the darkest and skankiest on the far left to the lightest and best sort. Source: Sultan Pasha Attars.

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.

High-grade white ambergris. Source: Sultan Pasha Attars.

High-grade white ambergris. Source: Sultan Pasha Attars.

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.

A huge, massive piece of the ultra pure white. Source & Photo: Patrick Lillis of Celtic Ambergris.

A huge, massive piece of the ultra pure white. Source & Photo: Patrick Lillis of Celtic Ambergris. (Click to expand in new window)

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:

Photo: Patrick Lillis. 3kg of "stinky" ambergris "sludgy" which means it's soft and smushy in texture. Please note the frond-like, vegetal greenness at the very top.

Photo: Patrick Lillis. 3 kg of very “stinky” gold-brown ambergris “sludgy” which means it’s soft and smushy in texture. Please note the frond-like, vegetal greenness at the very top. Probably some sort of algae remnant from the ambergris’ time in the sea.

Photo: Patrick Lillis. Squid beaks, more squid beaks, squid beaks galore! That was one very gourmand whale, if you ask me.

Photo: Patrick Lillis. Squid beaks, more squid beaks, squid beaks galore! That was one very gourmand whale, if you ask me, and he clearly loved his squid.

Squid beak at the very far left of the ambergris. Source & Photo: Pat Lillis.

Squid beak at the very far left of the ambergris. Source & Photo: Pat Lillis.

Close-up of one white, expensive piece showing a few worms in the mid-left of the image. Photo: Pat Lillis of Celtic Ambergris.

Close-up of one white, expensive piece showing a few worms at the top-left of the image. Photo: Pat Lillis of Celtic Ambergris.

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:

A piece that looks like a whale's face and eye. Originally, 807 grams in weight which is extremely large, but fissures left a net weight of 650 grams. It measures 2.5 inches wide, 6 inches high, and about 8 inches deep. Photo and details: Patrick Lillis.

A piece that looks like a whale’s face and eye. Originally, it was 807 grams in weight which is extremely large, but fissures inside left a net weight of 650 grams. It measures 2.5 inches wide, 6 inches high, and about 8 inches deep. Photo and details: Patrick Lillis.

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.

Ambra Aurea

Ambra Aurea

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!

69 thoughts on “A Guide to Amber – Part I: Types, Definitions, Materials & Scent

    • You’re so welcome, Scentseater. It was fun to write, even if it did end up being much longer than I had anticipated. But, seriously, when faced with false Egyptian beards drenched with labdanum and ambergris-sniffing camels (not to mention Casanova and dragon drool!), it’s hard to stop oneself from getting carried away. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that photo of a gazillion tiny black squid beaks in ambergris, or forget the one of whales poo-ing in a giant explosion of… er… brownness. 😉 lol

  1. Dear Kafkaesque –
    Long time listener, first-time caller. I am so grateful to you for all that you do, most particularly for the time that you take to describe your experiences and translate them for laity and initiates alike.

    It has always seemed to me that you are in that extremely rare class of scent bloggers, numbering no more that five or six in total, whose work is undeniably a public service. This article, frankly, confirms my impression. I’ve only been reading blogs since ~2009, but I learned more in one place about amber here than anywhere else.

    Thank you for compiling this wonderful guide. I’ll be sure to go back to my collection with this beside and do some thinking.

    Best-

    • I wish you knew how much your words meant to me and how touched I am. I really don’t have the words to convey it properly, so all I’ll say is thank you, welcome to the blog, and it would make me very happy if you stopped lurking and if you stopped by more often, thereby giving me the chance to get to know you and your perfume tastes a little. But, really, thank you for your extremely kind words. It means so much.

  2. What a wonderful article! I love the part about ambergris. I have a small chunk and a bottle of the tincture. I added the book you cited to my Amazon wish list. I have Cistus, but not Labdanum. I will have to purchase a sample of it to try.

    • Welcome to the blog, Soappen. Labdanum is glorious, and I hope you think so as well. I also hope that you enjoy the book. (Dragon drool, camels, and poo!! lol) Let me know what you think of the labdanum once you try it and after you compare it to your cistus.

  3. This is the go-to article of its kind for perfumistas. Thank you for putting this information together and for letting us into your fascinating perfume inquiry!

  4. This was one blockbuster perfume article. Thanks for all the extra education on Amber, a major ingredient that exists in several of my perfumes, but not one that I opt for most of the time. Not that I disregard Amber, but it just seems that my opportunity for it and to learn about it is less than other perfumes. Thanks for making me realize that my collection consists of more amber perfumes that I thought…and among one that are my favorites.

  5. Wonderful read, dear Kafka, and a welcome tangent! Loved the historical references, and your detailed and insightful analysis. As always, a pleasure to read.

    100,000 words is very nearly a book, you know ;)…

    • Haha, very nearly a book indeed. But when single posts are more than 5,000 or 6,000 words, the numbers do rack up quickly. Weren’t the historical tidbits cool?!! I’m such a history nerd, I could have gone on about that all day but I restrained myself as best as I could. 😀 😛

      • Kafka, unrestrained. That would make a good working title ;>

        Glad to see you having so much fun with this one! The historical details are wonderful, and scent-sniffing camels may be my new favourite historical nugget 😉 It’s been an uninspiring year for many of the new releases (haven’t even been tempted to sample that many in 2016), so I’m sure this was a welcome change. I love labdanum, and cistus even more, btw :))

        • You know, anything with a historical bent is easier for me to write and makes me significantly happier as well. History will always be my first intellectual love, and if it were manageable, practical, and easier to write about on a weekly or bi-weekly, consistent basis, then I’d give up the perfume analysis/blogging in a heartbeat. But history simply doesn’t lend itself well to a twice weekly or three-times weekly schedule, it takes a monumental amount of work and research for each one, and it’s pretty exhausting after a while. I know because I actually used to do that, and still have a ton of old articles that I should probably upload sometime — except it would completely bewilder current readers who come for the perfume stuff. LOL. 😀 But if I could write about history, I’d be so much happier. Perfume really doesn’t move me in the same way. Not even remotely. It’s far, far down on my list of interests, but it’s the most practical and accessible one to write about on a constant basis.

          With regard to new perfume releases, I feel much the same way as you do, Lellabelle. It’s been difficult for me to get inspired about most of the established niche brands’ output. Indie or artisanal ones have been better but, at some point, one has to talk about the latest Unum or Tom Ford thing and those… *sigh*

          I’ve actually been considering doing a series of posts on some vintage greats but now that the New Fall Release season has launched in full swing, I’d have to cover those first. I confess I’m not looking forward to it, and may try to carve some time to do a piece on vintage Shalimar soon. I tried one new release the other day that made me think, “Oh hell no! How on earth am I going to get motivated to write about this one?!”

  6. Comprehensively researched and a joy to read. I was anticipating that there would be a section around Ambergris on Sclareol, Terpenoid’s and Ambrinols.

    • Thank you for the kind words. With regard to things like Sclareol, Ambrinols, etc., that would be getting too much into organic compounds and synthetics. The former is the furthest thing from my area of specialty; the latter would need a whole post on their own, as I noted in the case of Ambroxan. I’m not the ideal person for that, either, given my physical sensitivity/reaction to a number of them and my intense dislike as a result. Someone with chemistry knowledge, or someone who is interested in the breakdown of materials would be best.

  7. Wow, amazing definitive article on amber and amberigris. Especially enjoyed the quotes from the Celtic ambergris expert. My holy grail of ambergris is Profvmum Ambra Aurea, so beautiful!! Thank you for a well written and researched article. This was over the top fantastic work. Thank you!!

    • You’re very welcome. I’m particularly pleased that you enjoyed Patrick Lillis’ insight and quotes so much, Ricky. He’s a font of knowledge, and his passion for ambergris is evident. I’m also glad to hear that Ambra Aurea is such a favourite of yours. It’s a wonderful fragrance and deserves its status as your Holy Grail of ambergris.

  8. Thank you for this article. I really love reading your blog and it is a permanent tab on my iPad (so I can refer to it anytime). You have made me more interested in amber fragrances. Ambra Aurea from Profumum Roma is my next wanted sample! Can’t wait to see Part II and perhaps add more to my samples wish list.

    • I’m so happy that I’ve gotten you interested in trying more amber fragrances. And, yes, Ambra Aurea should definitely be at the top of any sample list for its genre. (Its Fiore d’Ambra sibling is really worth trying, too, as you’ll see when I post Part II, but that’s been delayed a little as I’ve been a bit under the weather. But look up the Fiore d’Ambra review and see if that sounds tempting to you before you finalize or place any sample orders.)

  9. Fantastic article Kafka, thank you so much. Totally second Martinus Scliberus’s comment about your blog being a public service! The article has many new facts for me, which I love, I never imagined ‘real’ amber smells (I do have some pieces and thought the association with amber perfume was colour and texture rather than that ofcourse it is a resin which would smell!) and then the wonderful ambergris part (and the beard!). I smelled real ambergris once and then it was still the idea this was vomit rather than poo, but I remember it smelled of poo, but not in an indolic way, and this may sound awful to some, but sometimes poo smells ok (at least, my dog’s one, not always, it depends on what she had for dinner obviously…and I smelled elephant poo which was ok too)
    I will print this gem of an article, and keep it in one of my aroma therapy books so I can read it more often. And then I will put some amberperfume on, but it is hot here, so it will be a diluted one…
    Looking very much forward to part II!

    • Ha, I’m sure Her Highness’ poo is as lovely as the rest of her. Joking aside, I understand what you mean about some poo smells not being problematic, but I think people like us get acclimated to it when it comes to our beloved Teutonic Overlords. I have to admit, I don’t find that to be the case with elephant poo, or that of other big or exotic animals at the zoos that I’ve been too. Perhaps it’s a question of it piling up or something else, but I didn’t find them to be the most tolerable of poo odors. 😀 😛

      Give “Angela Merkel” a kiss for me, Hamamelis.

      • Lots of kisses back, for you and His Highness.
        The elephant poo I smelled was dry, in the bush, so I think that makes a difference (I suppose also what the elephants feed on or get fed).
        Hope you are well K. We’re well, business is growing fast.

  10. Wow, this is like the perfect follow-up to our discussion regarding amber several weeks ago. Very informative! I smiled reading the Play Doh comment as I’m sure I mentioned that being one of the funniest associations that I just can’t shake after someone entered my office and asked what smelled like it while I was wearing L’Artisan Ambre Extreme. I’m not sure how ambroxan smells in comparison to real ambergris, but notice its usage in a few scents from Rasasi I tried this summer including Ambergris Showers which is a rather interesting scent. Now I must go back to my Sultan Pasha samples I have tucked away and see which have ambergris in them so I can give them a spin and pick out the notes!

    • I feel sheepish in admitting that our Play Doh discussion actually slipped my mind, Jim. I’d seen the Play Doh thing referenced by someone in a Basenotes forum thread, and it was also mentioned to me in a recent email by someone seeking suggestions, so that is what I had been thinking about, but you’re absolutely right that we did talk about the chap entering your office and his scent association.

      I’ve been thinking about the issue, so when I was doing one of my fragrance re-tests for Part II last week, I tried to approach the scent from the perspective of an outsider who was just smelling the fragrance from a distance on the scent trail, and tried to see how they might view the aromas if they weren’t familiar with the specifics like, say, benzoin, etc. It was MPG Ambre Precieux whose category classification I was trying to figure out and, when I kinda squinted (so to speak), viewed it from afar, ignored the individual notes, etc, then I could almost see the “Play Doh” thing.

      It’s the issue of sweet and vanillic powderiness, or powdery vanillic sweetness, depending on how one wants to define it. That’s the scent profile of Play-Doh at its most basic, simplistic level. I think the overlap applies most to Heliotrope, because it’s a purer, cleaner, lighter and even more vanillic smell than the spicier, richer qualities/facets of a resin like benzoin, but there is definitely an overlap nonetheless. So, clearly, the thing for people like your co-worker or you is to avoid compositions dominated by benzoin/tonka/vanilla above. I doubt he’d have that scent association with a fragrance dominated by a slew of labdanum or ambergris. Have you tried Ambra Aurea, by the way? If not, I recommend it.

  11. Wonderful post! You do an amazing job of compiling and organizing information in a readable manner and I’m always impressed with your attention to detail. Thank you for taking the trouble for us. I’m looking forward to the next installment.
    I love the sweet, heavy labdanum ambers and enjoy the play-dough aspects of some of the lighter ambers, but struggle with most vanilla and ambergris. I find it all very interesting, of course, and will have to try some ambergris scents again carefully this fall. For some reason, ambergris makes me feel uncomfortable and very slightly queasy but I still think it smells good. Weird stuff.

    • I’ve been thinking a lot about your ambergris issues, Mikasminion, and about why you may find it uncomfortable or why it induces queasiness. Do you think it might be because of: a) its vegetal quality; or b) the marshiness? I hate to use the word “moist” as I know that it makes a lot of people shudder, LOL, but there is a lot of moisture to ambergris that isn’t present in the other genres. A sort of humid wetness in a way. Do you think it might be that, or might it be the heaviness that is present, the strangely thick vegetal quality, the muskiness, or some combination of all the above? If we can pinpoint which one or ones is making you feel queasy, then we might find you an ambergris fragrance without them that would be more appealing. For example, perhaps Farmacia SS Annunziata’s Ambra Nera would work better for you because it is not an ambergris soliflore so much as it’s “Ambergris Plus” and it has a lot of the darker notes that it seems you enjoy.

      As a side note, what do you think your difficulty with vanilla might be? The sweetness? If it’s the cloying sugariness and artificial quality, then perhaps you can try something like a benzoin or Peru Balsam essential oil as an alternative and see if that sweeps you off your feet instead.

  12. Wow!!! what an informative article! I admire your profoundness, accuracy and humour. Love the pictures as well.It must have been time consuming. Thank you so much!
    My most beloved amber is Ambre Sultan.

    • You’re very welcome, Cornelia, and I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the pictures as well. Also, thank you for sharing your favourite amber. Ambre Sultan is definitely a referential, significant, and influential fragrance which set the stage for many of the labdanum ambers that followed.

  13. This is well timed, as I recently (and regretfully) decided labdanum heavy fragrances just aren’t for me. I will keep the dilution in mind, and maybe veer towards the sweeter side of things and see if that helps. But Ambra Aurea sounds like something to experience!

    • Awww, I’m sorry the labdanum ones didn’t work out but, you know, we all have some sort of genre or note that simply isn’t up our alley. Don’t feel badly about it (if you do). At least you now know the specific sort that doesn’t suit your tastes no matter how much you try. That way you can avoid wasting your time and also your money on any samples/bottles that other people may talk about. By knowing what doesn’t work for you, you can focus your attention on other types or sub-genres that may suit your tastes better. So, that’s a good start and a positive! 🙂

  14. I love Amber fragrances when the PlayDoh scent is not part of the mix. I don’t enjoy powdery scents on me. Is that benzoin I’m smelling? Tonka? I’m very interested in trying Dior’s Ambre Nuit but sometimes I read comments that say it underwent a reformulation and was ruined. Are any of the amber scents subject to the new restrictions that I should be wary of? I loved this post and it was so helpful to me as a newbie.

    • It’s difficult for me to guess without knowing the specific fragrances that you’ve struggled with, Troy, and their note lists but, having said that, the issue is likely to be: a) a combination of factors and b) their quantity levels. If a fragrance has a MASSIVE amount of benzoin, benzoin-tonka, benzoin-tonka-vanilla, or just a huge amount of tonka by itself, then that may be the source of all the powderiness. To me, tonka has almost a grainy texture at times in addition to its more powdery side, but it *completely* depends on how much of it is in the fragrance. Benzoin definitely has a powdery quality, particularly in its drydown, I think, but again, it really depends on how it’s been used and in what amounts. If either or both of those things are present in high quantities but, in comparison, there isn’t much labdanum, then that may be the culprit.

      Unfortunately, there isn’t a cut-and-dry, clear, absolute rule to know, and one has to go through trial and error in testing to know WHERE a fragrance falls on the spectrum. In going over and re-testing some of the “Grey Zone” “Labdanum Plus” fragrances for Part II, I encountered a number of fragrances that had either: generalized, non-specific amber notes, synthetic amber mixed with lots of benzoin, or simply benzoin-heavy “ambers.” To the extent that there was labdanum included in some of them, it was sometimes the tiniest wee drop and in the background, or it just surfaced in the drydown after an extremely benzoin-heavy start that — yes, if one smelt it from afar and on the scent trail — was actually quite powdery at times.

      In short, it’s the Dilution Issue at play because the dark resins have either been massively diluted, or they aren’t the real driving factor and central axis for the composition. But one can’t know that from ahead of time, so one can’t omit every fragrance that may have benzoin and/or tonka in it. Some fragrances with those notes have so much labdanum that the use of benzoin or tonka is a mere bridge between the perfume pyramid layers, or they’ve been used just enough to prevent the labdanum from being too, too, too woody, leathery, or dense.

      On a totally unrelated note, iris can also be a powdery note, particularly if the more make-up scented version, Orris, was used (as opposed to say, iris butter). If any of the fragrances that you had in mind or that you struggled with included orris combined with tonka, then that might add to the powderiness. However, Iris/orris isn’t a widespread thing in hardcore, more purely amber-centric fragrances. Floral Woody Musks, or some generalised oriental compositions, then yes, but the sort of fragrances that I’m focusing on in this particular guide don’t typically have orris. I simply wanted to give you a general heads-up since you say that you don’t like powdery scents on you.

      With regard to Dior’s Ambre Nuit, I haven’t heard any reformulation comments, but that may not mean much and it may have been reformulated. I don’t know, so I can’t speculate. I can tell you, however, that “amber”-related notes are not the focus of the IFRA/EU restrictions, and that I don’t think they are something to be concerned about in that regard. (If we were talking chypres or if you were interested in lily-of-the-valley fragrances, for example, it would definitely matter. LOL.)

      Bottom line, it sounds to me as though you need to stick to the dark end of the resin spectrum when it comes to ambers, or else try the ambergris-centric ones. But there is no way of knowing with absolute certain where things may lie on that spectrum without testing the fragrances first, and/or reading reviews on places like Fragrantica, blogs, Basenotes, etc. Hopefully you’ll find a few that tempt you to try when I post Part II, but I’ve been a little under the weather over the last few days, so that’s been delayed by a few days.

      • First of all, I’m so sorry you haven’t felt well. I hope you recover soon. Having said that, you are a much more cogent thinker and writer than I when sick! Your reply was so helpful. So in my case the culprit fragrance with the powdery scent that threw me off was Dior’s Feve Delicieuse. Reviewers I love adored it. I almost blind bought it, but I ordered a sample and at least in the first wearing the powder scent overwhelmed me. I certainly liked other parts of the perfume but the powder kept popping up to say, “this is not for you.” It’s probably a good idea to say here that I’m a male who frequently wears vintage Opium (pre-Opium for men). I love it along with other so-called women’s perfumes. It isn’t the so-called femininity that is an issue, but I think it may be as you say the ratio of ingredients.

        • Ah, Fève Délicieuse explains sooooo much!!! It’s absolutely the tonka in that case. A positive ton of Tonka, supplemented with benzoin that skews a bit powdery as well. The cocoa can’t help, and there may be some orris as well in that one, although I can’t recall the complete note list off the top of my head. Still, it’s a tonka-driven, tonka heavy fragrance, and that clearly seems to be the problematic element.

          As a side note, have you tried Dior’s Cuir Cannage and, if so, how did that work for you? It’s supposed to be a leather fragrance against an ambered backdrop, but it’s heavily centered on iris. To be precise, orris used in the old way so as to replicate the scent of floral makeup, lipstick and powder. And then, on top of all that, it’s mixed with Tonka as well! It’s intentionally meant to be a powdery makeup and powdery suede scent, so I could see that as being another difficult Dior for you. That said, there is some smoky leather in there as well, particularly in the opening phase. But the powderiness at certain points… It would be interesting to see what you make of that one and if it is any easier than the Fève Délicieuse, if only for comparative and learning purposes.

          Regardless, I think it’s a safe bet to say that tonka-centric fragrances are not up your alley! 😀 I think heliotrope soliflores would be difficult, too.

          • Sorry I missed this comment somehow. I haven’t tried Cuir Canage. I’ll test it when I can. Based on a sample, I’ve ordered Sultan Pasha’s Aurum d’Anghkor. (Not arrived). I assume that is an amber. In the same sample set was Ambrecuir which I also loved. I ordered it, too. That one surprised me because I don’t normally like leather scents. There was something about that one, and I assume it was the addition of amber. So I’m still on my amber journey, I think.

  15. Thank you for writing such an interesting article! I have enjoyed a lot the part about the ambergris, I have always been fascinated about it, and I have been lucky to smell a small piece of ambergris that Sultan Pasha put on my hand, the funny thing was we were eating french cheese and all the smells were mixing, I remember perfectly that salty stone, it was not a skanky one, and I was thinking about all the time needed for that stone to arrive where it was. Transcendental moment! (luckely we have Sultan Pasha attars to be sure we have this incredible ingredient !)
    I am also glad to read about your Ambra Aurea selection, it is my husband favourite and I understand now why!! it is by far the best of Profumum Roma imo. 😀
    Have a nice day!

    • Your husband has good taste! 😉 Ambra Aurea is definitely one of the very best of the Profumum line, but there are a few others that are lovely as well in other genres. Have you tried the Fiore d’Ambra, Merlina? That’s an ambergris sibling to Ambra Aurea but more feminine and much less hardcore, in my opinion. It may work for you better than the Ambra Aurea. If you haven’t tried it already, you should, but I’m sure you must have already done so. Still, it would be funny or sweet if you and your husband each had a Profumum amber to call your own and which suited your respective, personal tastes. 😀

  16. What a wonderful resource you have created! I second (and third) many of the comments already made here. So informative, well-organized and a pleasure to read! You are indeed a public service, and my favorite perfume blog.

    And it will help me immensely in my exploration of amber and “amber – plus” perfumes. I’ve recently been through all of your posts tagged amber and had picked out a few to try, so I look forward to your list of the best perfume for each amber material.

    • You’re very welcome, Amateur Dilettante, and I’m so pleased that the guide will be useful to you. With regard to Part II, it won’t be a list of the very best, say, a Top 10 of anything, but something broader in scope that will cover a variety of genres, even if the fragrances haven’t swept me off my feet to become a personal favourite. My goal is to be as comprehensive as possible to give people the widest range of options or types to try in order to find something that works for their particular individual tastes. It’s taking a longer than I had thought, and I hadn’t anticipated getting sick over the weekend either, so it may be several more days until Part II is posted. When it is, I hope you can find a few things that tempt you to try.

      So far, do you think you know the particular sort of “amber” notes or genres that you prefer? If not, no worries. We’ll get you started and on the path to learning more. For me, depending on type and the notes involved, some ambers can be the ultimate in “cozy comfort” fragrances, and that may be my favourite genre of all. 🙂

  17. What a wonderful article, right when I need some distraction. The nights here have cooled and I’ve started reaching for my ambers. Suddenly I love them all, even the herbal ones that used to have an aftershave vibe to my nose, although I still prefer those on my husband. I’ve become obsessed with labdanum and love wearing pure labdanum absolute diluted with a little coconut oil, although of course there is no projection and it’s a touch sticky on the skin. Vintage Opium is strutting its amber notes, and Fiore d’ambra suddenly enchants me although I’ve been lukewarm about it before.
    What I haven’t yet found is my dream labdanum-vanilla. It needs to be a powerhouse, rich and dense in the way that Sultan Pasha’s scents are dense, loaded with complexity. The drydown of Ambra Aurea is just about right but the first couple of hours are raw and harsh on me. My dream scent needs to have sweetness. I think that I’m looking for the labdanum equivalent of the vanilla-patchouli syrup Gothic I. If I were rich I would start Sultan Pasha off with this brief and know that I would get back my dream labdanum.

    • Heat (or the lack thereof) definitely plays a significant role in how a fragrance can smell, the notes which are accentuated, and even the fragrance’s longevity. I don’t think enough people consider the role of heat/lack of heat in perfumery, so thank you for raising an excellent point and I hope that others will consider that factor as well.

      One day, I hope you find your dream labdanum-vanilla. I know exactly the sort of composition you mean, and I haven’t found it either. Labdanum-tobacco, labdanum-other things — yes. But labdanum-vanilla, no, not yet, not the exact perfect one.

      Totally unrelated: have you tried Taklamakan yet? I actually think that would hit a sweet spot for you, although in a different sub-genre. A ton of dark, woody vanilla with a plethora of ambered resins, patchouli, some smoke and cinnamon =scented spice… I really, really encourage you to get a sample because I think you’d love it, particularly as your skin tends to mute excess sugariness (unlike mine), so you might not have the initial struggle that I have with the very beginning of Taklamakan.

  18. I was practically bouncing up and down reading this piece, which I’ve defintely bookmarked. I really liked Ambra Aurea, LOVED O’Hira (thank you for reminding me that I took my sample with me to the US! Now waiting for the weather to cool down…), but Mitzah? That one brings me to my knees. It’s just perfect.
    I really loved the historical tidbits, and I found the photos fascinating, thanks to Patrick Lillis and to you for including them!
    Eagerly waiting for part II.

    • Anne, first, I had meant to offer you congratulations on the changes and move that you’d mentioned in another comment, even if it’s only for one year. Welcome stateside and to the US! I hope you’ve enjoyed it thus far, even if Jovoy, Serge Lutens, and Paris’ many other perfume spots are far away for the moment, and I also hope that you’ve been made to feel at home in this country.

      I remember well just how much Mitzah made you swoon from the very first time you smelt it and your overwhelming love for that fragrance in the weeks that followed, so your comment regarding that one made me smile. Not even Fourreau Noir or some Serge Lutens came close to your immediate, instantaneous love for Mitzah. (Why they discontinued that one, I’ll never, ever understand, and I know you feel the same way.) Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed Part I, my dear, and it’s really good to see you again.

      • Thank you so much Kafka, I am touched you remembered! You are too kind with your readers. Please know your attention and thoughtfulness are very much appreciated. It’s going well for now, it is definitely a very exciting time. I intend to make some time to explore the perfumes offerings in the US! I was so busy last year I definitely fell behind with perfumes, which, considering my then-promixity to Jovoy and Lutens, is a damn shame. BUT I can’t wait to try other brands, and I have plans on purchasing at least a bottle of a Slumberhouse perfume (Jeke, probably) this year, since it *should* actually be easier to find in the US.
        It’s very very good to read you again, I am slowly making my way through all your recent posts. You mentioned somewhere in the comments that you were bit under the weather these past few days, I hope it’s getting better for you, and that your handsome German and your loved ones are also well.
        My encounter with Mitzah was truly a watershed moment. I did bring a sample to the US (the sale person gave me a few when I bought my perfume, bless her), as well as a full bottle of Fourreau Noir, plus other samples. I do intend to extend my amber knowledge though. Oh how I would love to try on vintage Shalimar…

  19. I waited until Sunday morning to take my time to read this. For the occasion, it took me 15 minutes to find my O’Hira sample post-travel to have that wafting as I read. I can’t help but wonder if I might possibly be the reader you refer to as moving from Amber-oppression to Ambre Nuit to amber being my favourite perfume type – it certainly was my path thanks to you! Thank you for the Ambregris details, absolutely does not turn me off. It is my favourite note in all perfume. I had Lumiere by Mandy Aftel on yesterday, and the way the grey amber shines in that alongside the boronia is just lovely. I will say that having moved to a much hotter country I have had to start re-trying all my scents. They all smell different in terms of top notes here, as well as longevity. It’s paradoxal. Whereas Lumiere as well as Sultan Pasha’s natural attars would disappear quickly in Montreal, here they last an easy 14 hours (!), meanwhile, Fiore Ambra dissipated much faster…but that may be because I was light handed in the heat. In any case. I can’t wait for Part II. And intend to wear Ambra Aurea tomorrow – my holy grail. Hope you’re well K.

    • Yes, you were the one re. the amber path. 🙂 Good to hear that the heat has positively impacted your longevity issues and that you’re getting great numbers now.

  20. Thank you Kafka for this well-researched, educational and comprehensive post! “Amber” is such a vast topic. I’ve always been confused by various definitions of this elusive term. And there are so many variations as well, exactly like the issue of “dilution” and accompanying notes you mentioned. I have tried to group the amber fragrances I know in different genres in order to have a better understanding, but quickly got confused and to no avail. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to your Part II to take some inspiration. And in this Part I, I’ve learnt so much, especially the part about ambergris. Some “articles” I read about ambergris just would like to emphasize the “whale waste” part as a shocking value, while these quotes from experts in the field is truly a treasure and provide rare insights on this matter. Thank you again for this wonderful post!

    By the way, about the labdanum part, since you mentioned different resins and vanilla, if one is to place Peru, Tolu and benzoin between a scale from labdanum and vanilla, how would the order be like? I haven’t had the chance to smell them in pure form, especially the Peru and Tolu ones which are much less discussed than vanilla, benzoin and labdanum. From reading your descriptions, I would say labdanum, benzoin, tolu, peru and vanilla? It’s definitely too simplified, I figure it would be a start to learn.

    • It can be confusing, Yinghao, no doubt about it. It doesn’t help that there is overlap between some of the genres, that there is no cut-and-dry absolute rule, and that it comes down to so many different variations (quantity levels, skin, etc.). I wish that things were easier, and that one didn’t have to go through a trial-and-error process to figure out where a fragrance falls on the spectrum.

      You’re also absolutely right that Peru and Tolu balsam aren’t frequently discussed as compared to something like, say, vanilla. Peru, in specific, doesn’t seem to be as widely used as the other resins. In terms of the spectrum, I think it really depends on the grade or type of resin used, like an absolute version vs. an essential oil (to give just one example), as well as the quality of each one.

      Having said that, I’ll try to give a really general, basic and simplified sense of my experiences using spaces to show where various ones fall, particularly with regard to each other. In other words, how close one resin may be to another, versus the ones at either end of the spectrum, if that makes any sense. I just hope the spacing thing works in a WP reply, lol.

      From darkest at left to lightest, sweetest, softest at the right end:

      Labdanum _____Styrax___Tolu Balsam_____________ Benzoin_________ Peru Balsam_Vanilla

      Tonka should obviously be near the vanilla end of the spectrum but, for both tonka and vanilla, the type really matters and makes a HUGE difference to whether it should even be on this scale to begin with!!

      Vanilla in particular differs depending on whether it’s a boozy Bourbon vanilla, a more floral scented one, a super sugary synthetic version, a heavily buttered one, etc. etc. It’s such a big category of its own, and I’m not the best suited person to go over all the different types because of how many synthetic versions there are. Someone well versed in aromachemicals and/or the more organic, molecular distillations of vanilla would be needed, and that is not my area of expertise or great knowledge.

      There are fewer types of Tonka in comparison but, there, too, it depends on whether a more coumarin-heavy distillation or type is used when determining how the tonka may smell in comparison to some of the resins.

      Still, if one is going to go for some basic, highly generalistic spectrum for the resins themselves, I think Labdanum (particularly the absolute and chewiest, densest, darkest type) would be at the far left of the spectrum.

      Styrax is close in terms of darkness, though quite different in scent, so *Tolu balsam* may actually be more analogous if one is considering more traditional scent profiles and bouquets. (I’m not sure if that made sense or was clear. My apologies, it’s complicated and, again, there is some overlap).

      What seems clear to me from my experiences is that Benzoin is at a distance from those two (or three), lies roughly at the middle of the spectrum but leaning close to tonka/vanilla — depending on the relative, respective quantities used for each one. There is no doubt that benzoin has a distinct vanillic and powdery side that isn’t really shared by labdanum and Tolu. However, it’s still darker, smokier, and more “balsamic” than mere Peru balsam, many common or synthetic version of vanilla, and certainly tonka as well. It depends on how much benzoin is used, the proportion of notes in the overall composition, etc. etc.

      It’s really a head-ache inducing mess, isn’t it? LOL. 😀 I was re-testing a few fragrances and came to the conclusion that there should be a “Generalized Amber” category as well, particularly when “amber” synthetics are used, because there is a sort of generalized, amorphous “goldenness” that appears and things like labdanum aren’t really strongly present or clearly delineated. Instead, there is a ton of benzoin and a synthetic, amorphous “amber” with — in some cases — a small quantity of labdanum. In a few cases, there isn’t even that.

      It’s made the attempt to categorize things not only difficult but, in all honesty, feel like a really silly endeavour as well. There are SO many factors and SO many variables that, at one point, close to 3 a.m. this past Sunday, I thought I was insane for even trying it. Ha. LOL.

      • This is not my comment thread but I find it helpful to think in terms of scales based on the impact each note provides in relation to what almost seems like complimentary notes, Amber + vanilla for example.

        • I think it’s great that you chimed in to share your way of thinking and approaching the subject, Troy. I hope everyone always feels free to do so, irrespective of whether they initiated a comment or not. Plus, there is always one method or framework that will work for a person more than another approach, so different perspectives can be very help. Viewing things as scales may be one way. 🙂 I agree with you that the impact of each part makes a difference to the final equation and sum-total.

      • Dear Kafka, thank you so much for taking time helping with this scale! 😀 I absolutely agree that the scent profiles can change according to various factors, but your reasoning behind the scale are extremely helpful and comprehensive! Next time when I swim in the sea of amber, I’ll have a clearer idea knowing in which direction should I look for these resins. 😀

  21. Having recently loved ambra aurea which I tried after first loving your description of it I just wanted to say how much I loved this article.
    I had already been thinking quite a bit about both ambergris and amber because of this and wondering about its history. I will have to get the book you mention as it sounds fascinating.
    I have a much treasured necklace of African Amber trade beads …… of course these beads are not African in origin at all, these are old worn and weathered beads (with every sized holes) that were traded there years and years ago, probably from the Baltic. Their variations in texture and colour are amazing.These are immensely treasured beautiful things that are massively valued everywhere. I think that some of the ‘magic’ they are imbued with might be because they are quite strange to wear. These big pebble beads take on body heat in a way that makes the sensation of wearing them difficult to describe.
    I already knew that fossil amber usually has a smell since I have smelled this when drilling holes in some baltic beach amber pieces. I also knew that a test for real amber trade beads involves touching a very hot needle to the inside of the drilll hole. Real amber (or the less thoroughly fossilised variant, copal) will smell the way you described, however, I think this is mostly diagnostic because the most likely fakes (which are themselves already old) will be an early resin that will smell very nasty and phenolic.
    I was also wondering about just how linked ambergris and amber must once have been, not just historically but also in prehistory. After all, both must have seemed amazingly exotic substances, gifts that came from the sea. Both also either float or they are very oddly light and they can even look similar. Both African trade beads and beach amber are patinated and weathered in a similar way. Neither look anything like the polished finish shown in the pieces of amber in this article. In fact, beach amber actually often looks exactly like the photo of ambergris you included in your review of ambra aurea.
    Looking forward to Part II. Thanks again for the article and your blog in general…

  22. Speaking for myself: I am interested in history, and the history of scents is so rich.
    You should give me much pleasure with articles about history in general and particularly about scent.

      • No worries, I knew exactly what you meant, Cornelia. 🙂 As for history, if I wrote about it, it would not be related to scent or perfumes. Regardless of subject matter, though, it’s not a practical or easy thing to write about every few days the way one can write about perfume. Even if the articles were spaced out, it’s a pretty exhausting thing to do on a constant basis. I know because I used to do once upon a time. LOL.

  23. Pingback: A Guide to "Amber" - Part II: 50 Fragrances To Consider - Kafkaesque

  24. I love amber perfumes and thus was very interested to read your post. So much information! I will have to come back to this numerous times to absorb it all. Thank you for undertaking all the research to present this to your readers. I feel enlightened!

    • Welcome to the blog, Cynthia. I’m glad you found the article useful, and I hope it will help you find a few fragrances that you love. 🙂

  25. I’m highly allergic to Balsam of Peru/Tolu and the billion products it’s found in, filed under “fragrance” from everything from tooth paste, soap, perfume, sunscreen, hair dye or ” natural flavoring” in foods and beverages. So found it truly interesting to read your post, as I couldn’t understand why it it is so heavily used, yet gives so many people eczema and stomach upset. So you helped explain it.

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