Ambergris. Like a bottle at sea, you carry a fragrant message to the World. Born in the entrails of a cachalot, you started your journey within the most noisome wastes of the animal. Your waxy nature allows you to float and your odyssey can last for decades before you eventually wash up on shore. Lucky are the ones who can recognize you then, as you resemble anything but a treasure. Your scent is however unmistakable to the crackerjack who will sell you for a small fortune to the perfumers. Now ennobled, you hobnob with the most precious oils and fragrant substances before to end up proudly your life in the cleavage of some beautiful human creature. Ambergris, you are a role model for me.
Ambergris‘ name comes from the French “ambre gris” for gray amber, itself derived from the Arabic anbar. This waxy substance is produced by the bile of the sperm whale (Physeter Macrocephalus) to protect its intestinal tract from the razor-cutting beaks of digested giant squids, the primary food of this gigantic cetacean. At times, the animal expels ambergris stones with its feces. As wax floats well and can’t be decomposed by sea water, ambergris is carried away by the sea currents to wash up on distant shores eventually, sometimes after several decades. Fresh ambergris is black and has no value in perfumery as it smells fecal. It is only after spending several years at sea that the substance gets slowly oxidized and transformed into a whitish or gray matter with a unique odor profile.
The main constituent of ambergris is ambrein, a triterpene alcohol proven to stimulate sexual behavior in rats. The legendary aphrodisiac effects of ambergris are possibly from the same origin. Ambrein does not have a particular smell, and it is its degradation by seawater, sunlight, and oxygen that fragments it into smaller and odorous compounds. The first one of interest is dihydro-gamma-ionone, responsible for the sweet tobacco note of ambergris. Another one is ambrinol, itself derived from dihydro-gamma-ionone. Ambrinol gives its earthy note to ambergris. The most valuable molecule issued of the degradation of ambrein is Ambroxide, also known by its commercial names of Ambrox or Ambroxan. In pure form, this substance is a white crystal that dissolves quickly into ethanol but tends to recrystallize during the evaporation of the alcohol.
The smell of ambroxide is hard to describe, except it feels just magic to many of us, with some clean and woody character, itself responsible for the odor profile of ambergris. It is a valuable fixative in today’s perfumery scene and can be found in a vast amount of modern fragrances, sometimes in high concentration. As natural ambergris is extremely rare and costs a fortune, ambroxide is today derived from the affordable compound called sclariol, extracted from clary sage.
My picks of the week will highlight fragrances with a discernible note of ambergris or ambroxan:
Bois Iridescent by Mizensir. I love the ambergris note of this fragrance, which is dominating a light floral and woody blend. Mizensir is the private brand of Alberto Morillas, the star perfumer of Firmenich and creator of so many best-selling perfumes. I visited their flagship store in Geneva this year, where I discovered many treasures in the form of alcoholic fragrances of course, but also candles and room fragrances. Bois Iridescent is a perfect juice for summer, making you feel so radiant (iridescent) and bright in the morning, and accompanying you the whole day. The fixative power of ambergris and the talent of Alberto, of course, is behind this incredible performance. One of my favorite fragrances ever!
The House of Creed was established in 1760 as a tailoring house in London before to relocate to France in 1854. Creed was commissioning bespoke clothes and fragrances exclusively to the wealthy of this world until Oliver Creed, heir of the 6th generation, decided to open his boutique in 1970 in Paris. Green English Tweed launched in 1985 was the milestone that brought Creed to the pinnacle of high-end perfumery houses of this world. Aventus is perhaps their best success to date and one of the most amazing men’s fragrances, in my opinion. What is the secret of Creed? Indeed their magnificent base blend, a sort of Guerlinade that we could call “Creedade” where Ambergris plays a significant role. Many or most of the great perfumes of Creed contain natural ambergris or ambroxan to some extent. A real delight for the noses.
Ambre Eternel by Guerlain is a superb new entry in the prestigious French house, part of the collection called Les Absolus D’Orient. This perfume, created by the house perfumer Thierry Wasser, is a woody leather with some spicy notes and a light floral and fruity heart. Even if it is maybe not directly perceptible to everyone, ambergris adds a lot of radiance to the juice from the opening until the dry down. Guerlain notes: “The main ingredient in this amber accord is Ambergris, which gives Ambre Eternel its sensual, voluptuous character. The amber accord then unfolds, roused by the spicy facets of cardamom and coriander, before delicately melting into a blend of orange blossom absolute, leather and woody notes.” A superb present for this Fall as it might be now too powerful for summer days.
To discover the smell of pure Ambroxan, nothing easier than testing one, or both, of the following fragrances: Molecules
Escentric Molecules lead by the German guru-perfumer Geza Schoen is the first brand that dared to commercialize “soliflors” of aromatic molecules. Their first creation, Molecule 01 is a pure juice of ethanol with ISO E Super in high concentration. Molecule 02 focuses on the molecule of Ambroxan. Try also their Escentric 01 and 02 which use the same dominating molecules but this time in beautiful accords with other notes.
Curiously, two years later in 2010, Juliette Has A Gun, the brand of Nina Ricci’s grandson Romano, launched the now-famous Not a Perfume, also made exclusively of Cetalox, a superior selection of ambroxan from Firmermich.
In both cases, lots of disappointment can occur if the customer is not especially motivated to buy these fragrances for their unusual olfactory effects. My advice for the aficionados of these specialties, like me, is to purchase your pure ambroxan directly and make your own juice for a fraction of the price. A concentration of 20% should bring you close to the original above and let you enjoy the bright radiance of this molecule.
If you love ambergris as much as I do, try at least once in your life to source the real stuff, even if it costs a lot of money. I placed my order to ambergristincture.com in New Zealand, but you might find other reliable sources also. You will not regret it.
I wish you a very fragrant week my friends,