Friday, July 10, 2015


Amber, the fossilized resin.
There is no such thing as amber essential oil.  Essential oils (and absolutes for that matter) are derived from plants.  There is no one single plant that creates the note "amber". Some regard a certain species of fir grown in the Himalaya's as the source of the note but that would be false.  The oils we identify as "amber oil" are really proprietary blends, secret formulas, of oils and resins blended together to produce a warm, rich, caramel-like note. The concept of amber came into being in the late 19th Century with the development of vanillin (a synthetic vanilla) which was combined with labdanum, the exudate of Cistus labdanum.

Amber is a primary ingredient in Oriental perfumes, a classification heralded by Guerlain's Shalimar, which used vanillin, labdanum and coumarin (the principal note in tonka bean) to create a sweet, warm, powdery and erotic fragrance.  Not all Oriental perfumes, however, are ambery.  Opoponax and other balsamic and resinous materials are used as bases as well creating a wider spectrum of Orientals.

There are materials that are often confused with amber. The prehistoric tree, Pinus succinifera, produces a fossilized resin used in jewelry making.  A process called destructive distillation is used to produce a material called fossilized amber, or Baltic Amber. Most of what I've smelled is not pleasing and so not used much in perfumery.  I've sourced out a beautiful oil that is deep, rich and smokey with a subtly sweet and lasting dry down. Ambergis is the waxy secretion of the sperm whale.  It is secreted by the gastrointestinal tract of the whale to coat and soothe it from the sharp beaks of it's favorite meal, the cuttlefish.  The mass is excreted and floats on the ocean.  The synergy of sun and salt water transform it into a sensual, warm and somewhat ambery perfume substance that lasts and lasts. Ambrette is rendered from a type of hibiscus and is referred to as the vegetal equivalent of musk.  It is ever so slightly ambery (but more animalic) and becomes sweeter during its long dry down.

Cistus labdanum
Natural perfumers seeking to create amber accords will most heavily rely on labdanum. As well as vanilla, other balsamic materials are used to create the chord.  Benzoin, from the tree Styrax tonkenensis, is secreted when the tree is injured and is soft, warm and caramel-like with a powdery drydown. Styrax, from Liquidambar orientalis, is another tree resin and smells a little like glue and cinnamon.  Other materials would be Peru Balsam, Balsam Tolu, opoponax and tonka bean.  Other camphorous materials, incense resins, florals and woods are included to add distinction.

Amber Oil
Years ago, after reading about the realities of amber, I attempted to create my own amber accord.  I collected every material I'd ever read might be included in formulating the accord and began to create my own.  It's wonderful - and useful - to have my own formula to use for blending perfumes.  Pleased with my concoction, I made my own version of Amber Oil (available on my website and Etsy store).

On the heels of my recent Spice Route perfume class (and the resultant research I did) I'm teaching a class on Amber and Oriental perfume making in my home studio in Brooklyn on Sunday, July 19th. We'll review the Oriental classification and pass around some examples of established and niche perfumes.  Resins, balsams, florals and spices that were discovered along the Spice Route will be discussed, explored and available to work with to create two perfumes.  For more information and to register look here.

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