Amber is a matter as intriguing as fascinating for millennia. When evoking amber, people are often confused between the resin used especially for jewelry and the raw material cherished by perfumers. These are two very different things. One is a fossil resin with orange-yellow highlights secreted by conifers and formed millions of years ago. The other, ambergris, is a matter of animal origin very popular in perfumery. Its name comes from the Arabic “anbar”, which means sperm whale. But what connection can there be between this marine animal and perfume? Let’s unveil the origin and the secrets of this mysterious raw material…
Ambergris: a surprising origin
Ambergris is an animal raw material, just like musk. It is actually a concretion from the sperm whale. To feed, the cetacean eats large calamari whose beaks injure its intestinal walls. This causes lesions that the sperm whale will heal by secreting a substance that is then expelled naturally: this is the first form of ambergris.
At the first glimpse, and the first smell, grey amber is far away from the subtle and delicate scent of your fragrance. It releases a rather unpleasant odour and has a blackish appearance with a soft consistency. Floating at the mercy of the currents, ambergris will begin to lighten to become silver gray or almost white. In the vastness of the oceans, thanks to the effect of sea salt, it hardens little by little and its smell evolves, it refines. Without this flotation step, the scent of concretion would not be bearable. To recover this precious substance, sperm whales are therefore neither hunted nor abused.
So what does ambergris looks like?
Driven by the flows, grey amber stones, which at this point look like big blocks, end up stranded on the shores of the beaches. Small dark stone or large fragment, ambergris has no generic shape. However, experienced fishermen know how to recognize it among all the other stones. And it’s easy to understand why when you know its price and rarity!
An ancestral use
The origin of ambergris has long been a mystery. 2000 years BC, Chinese thought it was the “perfume of the dragons drool”, sleeping on the open sea rocks, so deeply they drooled in the ocean. An Arab doctor by the name of Avicenne developed another theory of an underwater fountain explaining the origin of ambergris. Yet, its use dates back to antiquity. Egyptians already used it in their incenses and other scented oils. Highly appreciated for its aphrodisiac properties, it is also used as a real makeover.
Sought-after for its medicinal properties, ambergris landed in Europe in the Middle Ages and its price quickly reached the one of gold! It is then worn around the neck in a pomander (or apple of amber), which looks like a perforated metal ball containing a small piece of amber, protecting from diseases. Some relate that Marie-Antoinette used to drink every day a hot chocolate concocted with cocoa, vanilla and ambergris. While her ancestor Louis XIV drank it in his hygienic broths.
An incomparable perfume
The smell of ambergris is hard to describe because it varies according to the time spent on the sea and its origin. It releases of course heavy and powerful notes of animal scent, even musky. Your nose will be tickled by woody notes of tobacco, oriental spices or a seabed of seaweed. Grey amber also awakens our senses with warmer vanilla and creamy notes. To each nose it evokes a different memory, letting olfactory souvenirs make them effect. From the incenses burned in churches to the perfume of oriental markets, ambergris reveals its thousands facets to delight noses seeking for sensuality.
Its use in perfumery
Being very rare (only 1 to 5% of sperm whales produce it), ambergris is logically a highly expensive raw material. Today, grey amber used in most perfumes comes from a synthetic material, ingeniously reproduced thanks to the work and know-how of talented perfumers. Once again, synthesis offers to Noses an expanded palette of scents, by democratizing the use of a material that would otherwise be dedicated to an elite.
In perfumery, ambergris is very often used as fixer. It helps to improve the remanence of a fragrance, to make it last longer on your skin. Indeed, its persistent notes allow to set the most volatile ones. This is why we can find traces of amber in many compositions. It is commonly associated with gourmand, warm or woody notes, and ingredients like vanilla, musk or patchouli. You understand why it is one of the essential raw materials of Oriental fragrances. It also fits perfectly with floral and spicy formulas. By giving them warm, deep and sensual facets, ambergris sublimates many perfumes.
When we created so, we wanted to highlight this precious ingredient. Ambergris settles in its base note, sublimating a cocktail of flowers and spices: bergamot, coriander, tonka bean, jasmine, musk or patchouli and vanilla. We have thought this fragrance as an invitation to an inner journey, the meditation and relaxation. First created as an eau de parfum for your daily use, we quickly developed an even more intense pure perfume version. And if you love taking scented naps in your sofa, enjoy the journey with our incenses…
Did you know the origin of ambergris? Are you already addicted to this ingredient or are you now ready to give it a try?
© Crédit photo : Ambre Gris Europe