Amber is a scent so popular, nearly every perfumer has a version of it. But what exactly is it?
Amber essential oil?
I’m sometimes asked where to get ‘amber essential oil’, which is at best a misnomer. Unless we’re actually talking about ambergris or fossilized amber oil, both very uncommon, the amber in fragrance is always a blended scent rather than one particular ingredient.
Many people assume that amber comes from the fossilized tree resin known as amber or Baltic Amber. Fossilized resin has almost no scent at all except when burned, so there is little use in trying to make a fragrance ingredient out of it. There are some oils made from destructive distillation of fossil amber, but they tend to smell burnt and not like we imagine amber to be. However tree resins, the normal non-fossilized kind, have a lovely woody sweet scent we describe as resinous.
Amber perfume oil
Labdanum resin is the most popular and most recognizably ‘amber’ as most people think of it today. Other resins often used are benzoin, balsam of peru, frankincense, myrrh, copal, styrax/storax/liquidambar, as well as other oils such as cedarwood, sandalwood, and vanilla.
Somewhere along the line, perfumers created the amber note as a sweet, woody earthy note from blends of various resins. Perhaps because resins are the precursor to amber, or perhaps to represent its warm golden glow, or perhaps in aims to resemble ambergris at a lower cost.
Looking for an Amber perfume? Try my Amber perfume oil !
Historical references to amber fragrance usually mean a very rare and expensive perfume ingredient called ambergris. Now, when I tell you about where ambergris comes from, you’ll most likely be turned off–but bear with me because this gets really interesting.
Ambergris starts out in the digestive system of a sperm whale. Yep. The whale’s stomach or intestines produce this fatty substance to protect itself from the sharp squid beaks. The whale then excretes this substance–it is still debated whether it is vomited, expelled in the manner of a cat’s hairball or owl pellet, or if it comes out the other end. Lovely…
So then this glob of nastiness simply floats out on the open ocean for several years. Long exposure to the saltwater and sun hardens it and converts the scent from foul and marine to a sweet, earthy fragrance. The longer it has aged, the more useful and valuable it is the perfumer.
The reason ambergris is so valuable as a perfume ingredient is not just the the fragrance is long lasting and unique, but that it is the best fixative in all of perfumery. Not only does it extend the wear time of the perfume by being a long lasting basenote, but the addition of it actually helps ‘fix’ the other perfume ingredients so they last longer on the skin.
And while sperm whales are an endangered species, it is believed than only about 1% of sperm whales even produce this substance. Ambergris that is discovered on the beach can be worth tens of thousands of dollars depending on the size and quality of the find.
So next time you’re having a romantic long walk on the beach with your love, don’t forget to stop and pick up rocks to sniff at them like a crazy person. You might strike it rich!