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

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AbdesSalaam Perfume Course – Part VI: The Animalics

Bring on the animals! In perfumery, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” turns into “deer and beavers and furry rodents,” with a strong whiff of goats and horses as well. It’s quite another world, one where the materials in their concentrated or raw state smell very different from how they end up in a fragrance bottle on the store shelves. This is Mother Nature in her stinkiest, most feral, most natural form, though the skank sometimes feels like Mother Nature is on steroids.

Beaver glands, the basis for Castoreum in perfumery. Photo: my own.

Beaver glands, the basis for Castoreum in perfumery. Photo: my own.

What was so special about AbdesSalaam’s perfume course was the opportunity to smell some truly rare materials, to actually hold them in our hands, smear them on our skin or, in one rather disconcerting incident, even taste them on our tongue. From fossilized African hyraceum to Ethiopian civet anal sac paste and muskrat genital glands, each bore a scent that was truly like nothing that I’ve ever encountered in perfumery. Their aroma was so alien from my every day existence that I lack the olfactory vocabulary to convey the full extent of their aroma, but I shall try to do my best. Ultimately, like everything else in AbdesSalaam’s perfume course that I’ve written about so far, there is no substitute for personal experience and my posts can only convey one-tenth of what it was like. The animalics are just one part of why his perfume course is so unique, as well as why it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you should experience for yourself if you have the time, means, and opportunity.

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Modern Trends in Perfume: Part II – Sweat, Genitalia, Dirty Sex & Decay

Earlier, in Part I, I covered the super-sweet and gourmand categories of perfumes that are currently popular on the market. Perhaps as a backlash to those scents, some designers have sought to go in a polar opposite direction. I’m not quite sure how to characterize the varying scents in this group or groups, so I’ll simply call them the Extreme Eccentrics.

The perfumes range from scents which seek to replicate post-coitus … er… muskiness, to armpit body odor to (allegedly) unwashed female genitalia or semen. Even decay and decomposition. No, I’m not joking. I understand everyone’s body chemistry differs, but not when a perfume is *intentionally* made to smell like that. I also understand the interest in the scent of sex and the impact of pheromones. But when a scent’s after-effects have been compared to “canned tuna and urine,” and when you specifically tell your perfumer/composer that you want the smell of female genitalia (washed or unwashed is unknown), then perhaps you’re taking your brand’s famous eccentricity to really extreme levels. Vivienne Westwood’s famous (infamous?) Boudoir is one of the perfumes in question here. According to some, she specifically wanted the perfume to have a note resembling that of a woman’s private parts. And, it seems the perfumer succeeded. In fact, a large number of people seem to adore the scent – though almost all its fans admit they wouldn’t dare wear it to work and that it needs to be (as the name suggests) restricted to the boudoir. A proper, in-depth description of Boudoir can be found here.

Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom (discontinued after his death) is slightly different. Like Boudoir, descriptions of the perfume seem to imply that it too falls under the “sweatiest of skanky, dirty sex” category. But there is another added element: body odor. Kingdom has cumin in it and cumin has a tendency, in strong doses, to smell like bad B.O.  (Personally, I think cumin smells like revoltingly dirty socks combined with bad armpit sweat. No, I’m not a fan.)

Now, I haven’t smelled either of these two in person (Kingdom is not easy to find nowadays), but I’ve read plenty on both and find the whole concept behind them fascinating. Both scents come from designers known for being cutting-edge, unconventional, eccentric, and avant-garde. Both are clearly representative of their designer’s aesthetic and ethos. But they are also both perfect examples of the rebellion against the more mainstream modern scents with their predominantly sweet characteristics.  They are also not alone. There are numerous perfumes and colognes out there that seek to emulate sex and post-sex muskiness in different degrees. It’s just that few have pushed it to the extremes of Boudoir and Kingdom.

Or have they? A 2008 article in the British paper, The Guardian, points out the intention of some perfumers, going all the way back to Jacques Guerlain in the early 20th century:

Jacques Guerlain – begetter of the scents Jicky, Shalimar and Mitsouko – observed that his perfumes should recall “the underside” of his mistress, while Tom Ford declared that he wanted his Black Orchid to smell “like a man’s crotch”. Such flights of fancy are known as “knicker scents” and conjure the vagina, semen, even the anus. […] Still more notoriously, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan comprises a ripely resinous vegetal amber suggestive of female arousal.

Sperm-wise, we have Alan Cumming’s aptly named Cumming; Thierry Mugler’s Cologne with its carnal “S note”; and Sécrétions Magnifique by Etat Libre d’Orange, its packaging emblazoned with a spurting penis. The truly fixated should embrace Orgie, a graphic aroma created by Christoph Hornetz and Christophe Laudamiel as part of a 15-scent tribute to Süskind’s novel. An evocation of a copulating crowd, it positively spews semen. Those of a rear-ended persuasion, meanwhile, should consult Eau de Hermès, which revels in a certain sweat-spiced, masculine intimacy, while Roja Dove is proud that his “Roja Dove No 3” has a salty sensuality about its nether regions.

You might wonder how perfumers achieve such results. The Guardian article (linked to up above) explains:

Many of perfumery’s most venerable creations owe their sensuality to the use of animal ingredients with a certain “spray” element: civet, a faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat; castoreum, a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver; ambergris, a briny and vomitous by-product of the digestive system of sperm whales; and musk secreted from the sheath gland of the musk deer have all been popular perfume ingredients. Then things become still more complex: civet may be cut with hair or – brace yourself – infant excrement.

So, if you always wondered why that one perfume of yours smelled …. unpalatable…. to put it politely, baby poo and feline anal glands may be to blame. Or perhaps it’s something else, like the smell of rotting decay which the U.S. Department of Defense allegedly researched as a weapon of mass olfactory destruction. Okay, perhaps it didn’t go THAT far, but they certainly tried! It was part of another sub-set of scents in this Extreme Eccentrics group: perfumes that smelled of death and decomposition! From that same, incredibly fascinating article:

An American department of defence collaboration to devise non-toxic olfactory weaponry found the stench of decay to be more intolerable even than that of vomit or burned hair. A forerunner of such tactics, a putridly flatulent stink called Who Me?, was devised during the second world war to be used by the French Resistance (who else?) to humiliate fastidious Nazis. […] But the ultimate paean to decomposition is Laudamiel and Hornetz’s [2007 scent] Human Existence, a robustly repellent reek smacking of oral abscesses and vegetal decay. Apply to your wrist and you will desire only to hack it off.

Laudamiel was specifically influenced by Patrick Suskind’s fabulous, infamous, legendary and brilliant novel Perfume and its anti-hero, the scentless, Grenouille. It is a book I highly, HIGHLY recommend for all perfume addicts. Those who lack the time to read it may be interested to know that Grenouille’s ultimate and final perfume creation leads to an orgiastic explosion of excess and was made from the essence of 25 virgins. Laudamiel expressly sought to recreate the pivotal scenes from Perfume and the murderer’s scents, one by one, starting in 2000. (Without murdering anyone, I should hasten to add!!!) According to an informative N.Y. Times article on Laudamiel, he was assisted in his endeavour by a perfume scientist who “recruited two young female virgins and, with their parents’ permission, recorded their aroma using a polymer needle. Laudamiel found this scent on I.F.F.’s shelves, then added the scents Süskind describes as clinging to the virgin’s skin: apricot, nuts, sea breeze.” (See, “Smellbound.”) There has been no indication as to whether Laudamiel succeeded in his efforts to replicate Grenouille’s infamous and orgy-inducing fragrance….

Thankfully, most perfumers don’t go to such extremes. But niche perfume houses are increasingly pushing the envelope in order (in my opinion) to counter the avalanche of mass-market, generic Sugar Bomb and Gourmand perfumes on the market. There are no limits, no even the smell of human decay!

If all this has left you with the strong urge to take a shower or to cleanse yourself, then you’re in luck. Part III of this article will focus on the Clean/Fresh category of perfumes, along with the latest, popular trend of Aoud/Oud scents. I’ll add that link here when it is up. Stay tuned!