Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Amber: A perfume myth

Living in Denmark, I suppose I can call myself fortunate in some regards. It is true that Denmark is a country shaped by the extreme weather and the harsh winds blowing in from the the North sea. My delight is in learning that with the wind, the sea unearths prehistoric treasure in the form of vegetal amber. Amber is the name given to the fossilised deposits of resin created by trees, that have hardened over tens of millions of years. The golden lumps of amber that one can easily find scattered along the beach after a storm, indicate that vast forests of pine once flourished where the sea now lies. 

Contrary to popular belief, however, amber - when used in perfumery - is not of this vegetal variety. It is considered almost impossible to extract a scented oil from this ancient resource, and attempts at doing so are highly destructive and yield minimal results. It would be much like trying to extract the odour of a stone. So, why do so many perfume houses reference amber as a key component of a new scent? Well, basically, the term 'amber' is loosely used to describe a quality in perfume that is warm, rich and honeylike, and also somewhat powdery, oriental and earthy. In perfume, synthetic ambers are often created and patented by the large manufacturing houses to emulate the opulent golden warmth of the fossil. Otherwise, oils taken from modern resins and tree gums such as benzoin and labdanum are obtained for their warm spicy qualities, and are often cut with other oils such as vanilla, clove or patchouli to further enhance their aroma. Fragrance companies that claim they have created a "true amber" perfume are simply writing a poem to lull and entice the consumer.

Nonetheless, I do enjoy the qualities that "amber" lends to perfume, even though it can only be a modern interpretation borrowed from this petrified remnant of the past. As the focus of many myths and legends, I will continue to trawl the shoreline after a winter storm in the hope of snagging a sizeable lump of this extraordinary gemstone.


Anonymous said...

for some interesting reading there's The Amber Room" A room completely covered in amber, much of it carved. The amber that's found under the sea was never used for this room because for some reason it has lost the true quality of amber found on land. The whole room was disassembled befor the Nazi's stormed Saint Petersburgh.

Knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war. Its fate remains a mystery, and the search continues.

Once called the Eighth Wonder of the W

Anonymous said...

Dimitry, I want to write it again: I love your weblog very much!

On a daily basis I read what you write and just enjoy it so much.

Amber, I have seen it in many pieces of lovely jewelry here in Prague, and so often wondered how people could possibly extract any scent from it.

My home country is The Netherlands and I remember finding natural weird whitish coloured foamlike pieces at the beaches after a good storm. Maybe that was ambergris?

Blog Author said...

Thanks for the link fredricktoo!
I have just recently seen a Discovery Travel & Living show which showed images of this extraordinary recreated room. What opulence!

Marianne, thank you once again...

Based on your description, Im not sure if you have ambergris there, (is it waxy? or does it burn a black bubbling hole when you hold a heated pinhead against its surface?).
However, it may very well be amber, as it varies in colour from white through yellow, red, dark brown and black. Try clicking it against your teeth. If it makes a hollow plastic sound (less sharp than stone or glass), then it could be amber. Or alternately, if you add 160gr of salt to 1 litre of water, and stir, drop the chunks into the solution, and if it is amber, it should float. The coast of NL, DE, DK, NO and Baltic states are an excellent source of true amber. If rubbed against a wool jumper, and held next to a single hair, it should make the hair jump onto it, as amber conducts electricity.

Please let me know how you go!

Anonymous said...

Dimitry, it was definitely not anything synthetic. It was something from a fish, smelled salty. I was so much younger then and I did not keep those pieces for a long time.. probably because of that stinky seasmell after a while when kept dry??

If only I had known then what I know now ;).. Hermes, Eau des Merveilles is now one of my most favorite perfumes.

Anonymous said...

Answering Marian: It is known as ambergris, and it comes from the lining of a sperm whale's stomach. When fresh it smells awful; when aged it is divine. You can look it up for more information, if you like. It is not the same substance as amber the stone at all, though definitely it is not a myth, either. Using the stone amber to scent a perfume would be absurd, of course. :)

Nick said...

I have a question - some years ago in New Delhi I bought a perfume essence that was called 'black solid amber attar'.It's smell is like when one rubs baltic amber against linen, but much much stronger.Its like a crumbling stone, with a sugary structure like jaggery.Anyone knows what it is and how it is made? Its really good, the smell is sweet, musky, amber-like - it gives you a kind of liquorice feeling in the back of your throat when burned on charcoal.What is it made from? I don't think this the sperm whale variety but a plant resin.Anyone?

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for the information. I was curious because I am considering buying an "amber" perfume. Your answer was comprehensive and also an interesting read. Lovely pictures as well. I just wanted to commend you on your information and writing. Thanks again, Jess

Blog Author said...

Thanks Jess for your comments, and for your valued readership! :)

Anonymous said...

Hellow,i found your blog in searching of an amber perfume that could be as much similar as possible with the old scents,like from the 19 centurie if it's possible to find out.
and i have a question?how did they make amber perfumes back then,if what u're saying here is that they are made now only artificial?
in addition i was wondering if u could give an advice about white musk,which would be the most resembling with the scents from the past.a more"natural" resemnbling fragrance,something instinctual and not very technologically refined.
thank you very much,dimitri:D

Blog Author said...

Perfumes with "amber" qualities have always been made with components such as those described in my original post (labdanum, patchouli/vanilla etc)... as extraction from real fossilised amber yields very little if no results. Because scents classified as "amber" have such a diverse range of ingredients, its hard to say which 19th century ambers you are referring to. "Madini Ambre" is a nice, husky dark honeyed amber oil which, to my nose at least, has a very vintage feel.
Im afraid I have no recommendations for you with regard to white musk. Again, "white" musk is a rather modern concept. In the "scents from the past" that you refer to, it is more likely that musk was harvested from the musk deer - a practice now deemed illegal and irresponsible. "White musk" is likely more a perfumers term to describe a transparent "clean" musk, usually composed of synthetics. There is a lot of information pertaining to musk on the web.

Anonymous said...

thank you very much for the answer!i've just found ur blog but i'm gonna dig for further reading on it!
still ...could u recommend a book about history of fragrances or someting related?i've already read some...but they were too light for what i need.
wish i could learn this in school:P
thank you!


Blog Author said...

Hi Alina,
I think your best resource for finding rare and interesting books on the history of perfume is amazon and ebay. I don't have an old resource that I can suggest, as most of my research is done on the internet and from books I've bought online. Have a good dig around and you will surely turn up some gems.

Anonymous said...

This was very informative and exactly the kind of information I was looking for. Also, I love Denmark and enjoyed the references you make to the great country.

Anonymous said...

I wonder about this. The amber I collected on the east coast of Denmark last week smells very strong when polished with sandpaper. I have no doubt that a scent could be extracted from this by a professional. Are you sure of your information?

Blog Author said...

Yes, I am certain of my information. Let's review:

Enfleurage, Distillation, Maceration and Extraction are clearly impossible. If, through Infusion, the amber stone was ground into a fine powder and infused in alcohol, it might yield some result; but as my article clearly stated: this is a highly destructive method.
This only leaves Bioduplication using "Head space" technology ie: "synthetic reconstitution".

belinda-tang said...

Great post thanks!

What you wrote is indeed consistent with my readings. To highlight 2 articles:

1) This writer researched in some detail how to dissolve amber for varnish making:-

"Amber, a Hard Resin, in The Materials and Techniques of Painting:
- Some amber is exceedingly hard, softening at approximately 250°C and melting between 290 and 300°C. This fossil resin cannot be dissolved directly, even in hot drying oils, but must be fused or "run" first.... Attempts to dissolve amber directly in turpentine succeeded on a small scale in the laboratory, thanks to some ingenious tricks, but these were without practical value."

"...The oil of amber, which in fusing amber may be obtained as a by-product, forms in a refined state a pale-brown fluid of a strong, disagreeable odor. The crude oil is dark brown, and possesses a very repugnant odor."

2) Another informative article about amber. Apparently Wheelerite, an "amber-like" mineral found in New Mexico, dissolves in alcohol but "true amber" does not.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Dear Dimitri...Ooops wrong!

Amber, correctly called Ambergris, used usually in "real" custom-made parfumes is in truth a side-effect of Sperm Whale digestion. It was used in parfumes since Egyptian empire (aka mentioned by Nefertiti).

It is found on beaches or floating in the sea. One piece can be sold for 10-100.000 USD...

Blog Author said...

Dear Vit,
You are referring to Ambergris, the by-product of the sperm whale, whilst my article was referring specifically to vegetal amber: ie: fossilised tree sap, and how it is interpreted in perfume.

Thanks and best regards,

Nancy from Montana USA said...

Just found your blog while searching for "Amber". I have purchased a body butter with Amber described as an ingredient. Now I know, thanks to you that this is a synthetic compound. Certainly obtaining an oil or fragrance from a stone would seem absurd. Thans for your interesting blog.