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A perfect Amber: How age-old naturals and modern ambery specialties feature iconic perfumes

A perfect Amber: How age-old naturals and modern ambery specialties feature iconic perfumes

30 July 2018

In the sign of continuity between past, present and future, perfumes with ambery facets are quite successful among people from different cultural backgrounds; real crowd-pleasers and highly likely to get attention. 

Contrary to what one may expect, amber stone has anything to do with actual ingredients in perfume compositions: it is a “linguistic-olfactory” convention of the late 19th century. Many fragrances of those times, in fact, featured a distinctive accord of labdanum and vanilla, which became a perfume "genre" of its own.

From the point of view of a modern perfume classification, amber can be either a subfamily of the Oriental one, or a specific connotation/attribute of oriental perfumes with a richer, warmer, sweeter, resinous, slightly powdery and animalic quality.

The focus of “ambery-faceted oriental perfumes” is on the base accord, which generally consists of raw materials — both natural and synthetic— imparting a strong sensual characterization to the whole fragrance.


Amber “essentials”

1. The backbone of any classic amber accord is Labdanum, a resinous material covering the leaves of a species of Mediterranean rockrose (Cistus ladaniferus L. or Cistus creticus L.). The resin is collected and processed by steam distillation, extraction with ethanol or other solvents to obtain different quality essential oils, absolutes, and resinoids with a typical and complex olfactory profile, rich in undertones: woody and balsamic with spicy, sweet, honeyed facets and a powdery touch. For example, one of the most successful perfumes with these characteristics is Habit Rouge by Guerlain (1965), or Obsession by Calvin Klein (1985).


2. Vanilla or vanillin. When talking about vanilla, our mind goes to vanilla beans and to a rich, sweet, soft scent with floral, balsamic and chocolate-like facets.
Fragrance active-components of natural vanilla are very many, and among them Guaiacol, 4-Methyl Guaiacol, P-Cresol, 4-Vinylphenol, Vanillin, Acetovanillone, Vanillyl Alcohol, P-Hydroxybenzaldehyde, P-Hydroxybenzyl Alcohol, Acetic Acid, Isobutyric Acid, Isovaleric, Valeric Acid, Anisyl Alcohol, (E)-2-Decenal, (E,Z)-2,4-Decadienal, (E,E)-2,4-Decadienal, Methyl Salicylate, Methyl Cinnamate. You can also count more than 100 different species of vanilla plants — with higher or lower organoleptic specificity— generally classified by geographical origin: V. planifolia grows in Madagascar, V. planifolia var augusta in Giava, V. pompona in Antilles Islands, V. tahitiensis in Tahiti, V. Mexicana in Mexico, etc.
The fruit of vanilla is a seed capsule that takes nearly nine months to ripen and, before being processed, it undergoes to a delicate curing. This curing changes the harvested green vanilla beans into the dark, brownish, soft beans with the strengthened new organoleptic profile we all know. After that, vanilla beans can be finally processed to obtain different extracts: absolutes, oleoresins, or — exceptionally— to isolate natural vanillin (first isolated from vanilla in 1858).

Vanilla extracts, absolutes and oleoresins have different chemical compositions and specific organoleptic profiles that are characterized by vanillin, but that are largely more complex and “rounded” than the only vanillin.

For saving necessity or specific stability issues, vanilla extracts can be strengthened or replaced by the use of synthetic vanillin (from Guaiacol, Eugenol, Lignin) or by natural vanillin from biotechnology processes. Another aroma chemical widely used in vanilla-like formulates is Ethylvanillin.
In any case, we must highlight that, when compared to any vanilla extracts, Vanillin and Ethylvanillin smell sharply sweet, gourmand, sugary, pastry-like, rather having one dimension, without the “wealth” of facets characterizing the natural vanilla.

Noble Leather by Yves Saint Laurent (2013) liberates a powerful leather structure, supported by an intense ambery-woody accord and a languid, gourmand taste of rich vanilla.


3. Benzoin resinoids come from grayish resinous tears exuding from the bark of gum benjamin trees (Styrax tonkinensis pierre from Siam and Styrax parallelonervus Perkins from Sumatra). When the resinous lump becomes hard and brittle, it is harvested and processed to extract a usable resinoid. It smells warm, caramelized and smoky, with vanilla-like and powdery undertones. There are two benzoin varieties: Siam benzoin smells balsamic, almond-like, creamy, caramel-like with vanilla and cinnamic facets. Sumatra benzoin is more medicinal, with a sweeter balsamic touch and a floral facet.

Casmir (Chopard, 1992) and Dune (Dior, 1991) are two different takes on benzoin launched in the same period: warm and “opulent” the former, sharp and dry the latter.


4. Styrax extracts and distillates obtained from exudate of Liquidamber orientalis Mill. (not to be confused with derivatives of resins from Styrax tonkinensis Pierre from Siam and Styrax parallelonervus Perkins from Sumatra) share the intensity of benzoin but with a woody, sweet, cinnamic edge and a vinyl undertone.

Bel Ami by Hermes (1986) is an example of a distinguishing use of styrax: a refined mix of citrus, aromatic and woody notes supported by a classic amber base, where styrax adds a dry, woody “austerity”.


In order to make an amber fragrance more distinctive and unique, other “accent notes” are used:

5. Tonka bean absolute is obtained from seeds of Dipteryx odorata. Its main constituent is coumarin, which adds a sweet, enveloping, hay-like, tobacco and powdery quality to fragrances.

Shalimar is the epitome oriental-spicy fragrance created by Jacques Guerlain in 1925 and very famous for its special accord given by tonka bean (cumarin), bergamot and vanilla.


6. Peru balsam is a raw resin obtained starting from the exudate of a typical Peruvian tree, i.e. Myroxylon pereirae Kl. The trunk exudate is collected using rags covering stripped parts of the trunk. After that, the rags are boiled to recover a raw resinoid that can be further processed (Ethanol extraction and distillation) to obtain various extracts and resinoids widely used in perfumery.
Peru balsam contributes with a cinnamic, toffee-like, balsamic, warm, medicinal, gentle, spicier and slightly “vinyl” sweetness.


7. Tolu balsam is a similar kind of exudate from the Myroxilon family trees; the heavy resin drops are directly collected from the trunk — with no use of rags— left to dry, then crumbled and subjected to distillation or ethanol extraction, in order to obtain fragrance oils and resinoids. Tolu balsam also adds sweet balsamic note, with chocolate-like, liquorous, leathery and floral hyacinth tones.

Youth Dew features both the abovementioned balsams adding their rich facets to a classic amber accord. Youth Dew was launched by Estèe Lauder in 1953 as an oil bath, thought to be closer to American ladies’ beauty routine. It immediately obtained a huge success, which convinced the Company to launch it also as a perfume. It opens with a bouquet of fruits introducing a floral and spicy heart, a rich and textured mix with a strong personality that was then considered original and quite edgy. When the base notes start to emerge, Youth Dew morphs into a classical amber of rare power and presence, with a majestic sillage. A “long seller”, often chosen as signature scent.


8. Immortelle absolute — with its spicy, dry-fruits, hay-tobacco, gourmand, caramellic and licorice tones— is particularly used in the creation of modern amber accords. Not to be confused with Immortelle essential oil, whose olfactory direction is aromatic.

VIII Rococo Immortelle by Clive Christian is an example of a very modern use of immortelle within a sensual and enlivening men fragrance. Created in 2017, this fragrance combines the “round” sweetness of amber notes with the velvety tones of immortelle, a duo of citrus (bergamot and lemon) and vetiver.


9. Fir balsam absolute comes from the needles of a Canadian conifer, Abies balsamea L., and gives a sweet greener accent to amber accords, smelling pine, powdered sugar and caramel.


Specialty ingredients for ambery accords

Besides the age-old materials already mentioned and a large number of different materials with ambery facets, there are some aroma chemicals and compound specialties with an outstanding amber character, to be considered when thinking about a new amber accord.

1. Ambermox - Moellhausen No. 101285 [CAS 6790-58-5] is a benzofuran first identified by M. Stoll and his co-workers in the 1940s as the characterizing component of the natural ambergris [Lederer, E., Marx, F., Mercier, D. & Perot, G. Sur les constituants de l’ambre gris II. Ambreine et coprostanone. Helv. Chim. Acta. 29, 1354–1365 (1946)]. This aroma chemical is quite rare in nature and can be found only as a component of ambergris and plants like Cistus ladanifer L., Cupressus sempervirens L., clary sage (Salvia Sclarea L.), and Nicotina tobacum L.
In the early 1950s, the first “semi-synthetic” (from natural chemicals) process to obtain Ambermox was developed; afterwards, many other synthetic ways have been industrialized. On the nowadays market, Ambermox is almost completely synthetic.

Ambermox is used also to solve some of the issues on musks and animal-like base notes arising from the latest IFRA restrictions
Ambermox is an interesting and versatile material: it smells warm, ambery, slightly woody and sweet. This makes it the ingredient of “modern amber”: velvety and bright, very appreciated in today’s perfumery.

2. Woody Cyclohexanone – Moellhausen No. 116990 [CAS 36306-87-3] is a woody, sweet, rich, earthy, warm aroma chemical with a tobacco undertone that imparts a smoky facet to ambery and woody fragrances.

3. Moellhausen No. 1000559 [CAS 929625-08-1], a dry ambery note that presents woody, cedarwood and slightly ambergris nuances.

4. Musk Indenofuran – Moellhausen No. 1000716 [CAS 476332-65-7], strongly animalic, musky, with woody and spicy tones.

5. Musk Indanone – Moellhausen No. 105608 [CAS 33704-61-9], another fragrance agent of modern amber accords: musky, earthy, woody and slightly oriental.

6. IsoAmber Super – Moellhausen No. 123500 [CAS 54464-57-2], characterized by ambery, woody, phenolic, slightly cedarwood and powdery notes.


Amber creations should finally take into consideration the use of bases, at their best when their powerful olfactory impact is given by a very reduced number of ingredients.

Amber Dust B.Base™, like all B.Bases™ (abbreviation of Bold Bases™) developed by Moellhausen, is composed of less than 8 elementary elements. A sweet “building block”, where the vanilla-side gently meets the woody note of labdanum, giving life to an elegant ambery and dusty accord, reminding of burgundy velvet and past experiences.

Another example is Grey Amber B.Base™; in its narrow olfactory profile, the cutting animalic and salty notes come directly to the head, while its enveloping ambery notes and the earthy side given by musks find a great harmonization with heart notes of the fragrance structure, in which the B.Base™ is applied.

A final note about ambergris/grey amber is, at this point, necessary. Contrary to what one may think, grey amber (and all its chemical substitutes or isolates) can’t totally be considered an element of amber accords. In fact, it smells animalic, salty, musky and oily, with an ozonic undertone. It can, for sure, be used to uplift some notes in an amber formulation.

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