What is “Amber” in Perfume?

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 !

Ambergris perfume

Historical references to amber fragrance usually mean a very rare and expensive perfume ingredient called ambergris.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…

Ambergris – photo credit BBC News

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!
What is 'Amber' in Perfumery? Does it come from fossilized amber? Learn all about it this edition of  All Natural Beauty

8 thoughts on “What is “Amber” in Perfume?

  1. Oleg says:

    Nice article.
    I am very interesting in one question:
    What is the technology of production of amber soaps? Usually it consist of amber powder and amber oils.
    Thanks

  2. Anonymous says:

    Edenbotanicals has fossilized EO sourced from Himalayan pines that are 35 million years old. It is an interesting scent that I would use in minute amounts in my botanical perfumes!

  3. Roman Rabinovich GG, AJP GIA says:

    Hi,

    As far as I know, natural amber oil, that is dry distilled from Baltic Amber, can be reduced with Nitric Acid to form Succinic Acid and Artificial Musk, which is a nice fragrance. I don’t know if that qualifies as Amber smell, but just to say that Baltic Amber can have a strong and recognizable smell. Amber Oil also has an unpleasant smell before it’s reduced with nitric acid, that of crud oil.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Troy says:

    If you find ambergris on the beach (in the United States), you have not struck it rich without resorting to the black market. Possession has been illegal since 1972.

  5. neha says:

    Hello Stephanie,
    I enjoyed reading your article. Thank you.

    I had a query that i hoped you could help me with.

    I have some beautiful amber in a raw form. Like a soft stone and powdery. I really want to turn it into a softer texture and make it a creamy so as to use it for longer and not waste it.
    Would appreciate if you could suggest a liquid/oil to give it some base

    Hope to here from you soon 🙂
    Thank you.

    • Stephanie Vinson says:

      Hi Neha,

      Where did you get your amber? Sounds like one of the resin blends I see around–is it almost like a fine brown sugar? I suggest making a solid perfume from it using a carrier oil and a smaller portion of wax. Beeswax or any botanical wax. I say smaller portion of wax because you may get enough hardening from the resin itself.

      Warm a bit of oil (sunflower, jojoba or fractionated coconut) in a water bath on medium heat. Add your resin a little bit at a time to test how well it incorporates. Hopefully it will dissolve right in. If not then give it a little more time on the heat, and if that still doesn’t do it then you can siphon off the oil to separate it from any gunk that settles out.

      At that point, I would pull a few drops out and let it cool to room temp. If it cools to a solid then you’re done, but more likely it will be liquid–an infused oil. To get it to be a balm, you’ll want to add wax.

      My lip balms use a 3:1 ratio of oil to wax. Your mileage may vary depending on your amber and the wax you use. Just play around with it, pulling out a few drops now and then to test the consistency.

      Hope that helps,
      Steph

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