Ambergris

Fragrance Families: oriental, woody
Characteristics: warm, sweet
Fragrance Examples: Federic Malle – Portrait of a LadyMazzolari – Ambra, Tauer Perfumes – L’Air du Deser Marocain

Origin and History

Ambergris is a solid, flammable, wax-like substance of animal origin that has been used in the perfume industry for centuries. Possessing a dark grey, blackish color, this substance originates in the sperm whale’s digestive system.

Although fresh Ambergris reveals a strong, faecal odor, this scent evolves into a sweeter, earthy scent frequently compared with the smell of alcohol when it is being rubbed.

For many years, Ambergris was used by perfume makers because of its valuable fixating properties.

Production and Recollection

Since Ambergris can only be found either in the whale’s intestinal tract, its mouth or floating in the sea: consequently, the chances of coming across Ambergris are fairly low.

Consisting of three basic components – triterpene alcohol ambrein, epicosprostanol and coprostanone- this substance has high fixative powers. However, since it is difficult to find in its natural state, it has been regarded as one of the most expensive substances throughout generations.

Besides, Ambergris takes years to form and unless a dead whale is available for use, the amounts that can be collected in the sea or on the beach are too small to start a business with. Because of these natural difficulties and further legal and moral considerations, the use of natural Ambergris as a fixative in the perfume industry has been discontinued in recent decades only to be replaced by its synthetic variant, ambroxan.

As for its use in the creation of fragrance combinations, Ambergris is perhaps one of the rarest and most valuable substances used in the industry.

Despite some legal considerations –its commercialization has been banned in several countries, such as Australia or USA- some perfumes containing Ambergris can still be found, made in countries that still allow for its use –France and Switzerland, for instance.

These days most Ambergris-based fragrances have been made with synthetic scents. So unless a vintage perfume is being sold online, chances are that most modern-day perfumes do not contain the natural substance.

Making the Perfume

As with most absolutes of animal origin, it is the resin that is the chief ingredient for the production of both, the essential oil, as well as the absolute.

High-quality absolutes have become a rarity these days. Nonetheless, certain Asian countries are still involved in the production of well-stationed Ambergris –the fresh or low quality one will exude an unpleasant smell.

Whereas the absolute is made when the solid mass melts in boiling water, the essential oil is made by the distillation of fossilized Ambergris.

Commercial Presentations

Ambergris-based fragrances can be classified as belonging to the musk, amber or animalic scents.

Perfumes made from original and natural well-stationed Ambergris will possess a sweet marine scent with animalic overtones. Fresh or synthetic Ambergris on the other hand, will have a lighter more musk-like scent that is generally enhanced by the combination with other substances.

For both male and female fragrances, Ambergris has been found to work well with ginger or black pepper. Other presentations suggest exotic combinations with lemon and bergamot, thus enhancing the more marine-like overtone, which is characteristic of all Ambergris-based perfumes.