Rose or Amber?

Sticky Rockrose. You are a tough little shrub, bearing extreme summer droughts and the cold Mediterranean winter. Year after year, your courage and persistence made you gain more territory, at the expense of other species. Your fragrant resinous exudate has been valued since the Ancient times for soothing coughs, reducing menstrual pains and especially for their mind calming properties. The very first chapter of the Bible called the Book of Genesis, already mentioned your name as a precious resin. In these days, grazing sheep and goats carried your sticky twigs and flowers in their beards and wool, making it easy for farmers to collect, process and sell the prized amber.

A goat eating cystus leaves
A goat browsing cistus leaves in Crete

Cistus ladanifer, or Gum Rock Rose, is a flowering evergreen plant growing in the Mediterranean region, especially common in Spain and Portugal. The plant is also known as “sticky shrub” in Spain because the leaves and even the whole plant secrete a viscous brown resin called labdanum. This resin protects the plant from evaporation.  Labdanum has been used for ages as an herbal medicine, balms, and unguents, and as an ingredient in fine incense.

Baltic Amber Spider
Baltic Amber Spider (Fotolia/Kacpura) – Amber’s beautiful color and shine inspired perfumers, but the note is actually created by an accord of labdanum and vanilla.

Four kinds of essences are commonly extracted from the cistus ladanifer.  Cistus essential oil is produced by steam distillation of the leaves. The oil is yellow, sweet and balsamic. Cistus absolute is a solvent extraction from the leaves and twigs. It is darker in color and stronger in character than the EO. As the steam distillation has a very low yield, the production of cistus absolute is a more economical process. The most prized oil is, however, the Labdanum Absolute, produced by first macerating and boiling the leaves and twigs in a carbonated water to extract the resin. The dark resin floating on the water is then removed and processed by solvents to produce the intensely aromatic absolute.  Labdanum Essential Oil, distilled from the resin,  is harsher than the absolute. The labdanum note is complex and unique, similar to honey, with a turpentine opening and a transition to a more leathery note with hints of chocolate and tobacco, and some animalic character. Labdanum is a close vegetal equivalent to the legendary ambergris from the sperm whale.

Amber in natural form is a fossilized wood resin which does not have a particular smell. In perfumery, the amber note is, in fact, an accord of labdanum, vanilla, and benzoin. Labdanum alone is sometimes placed at the center of the composition, like in a new Jo Malone London fragrance called Midnight Black Tea, where the rich labdanum note is in tandem with guaiac wood. I love it and in fact also the whole new Rare Teas Collection from JML, well done!

Jo Malone London- The Rare Teas Collection
Jo Malone London- The Rare Teas Collection

More complex, from the raising house of Acqua di Parma (owned by LVMH), a new fragrance called Note di Colonia III is a good example of a fragrance with an amber note created with labdanum sweetened by tonka beans.  L’Ambre des Merveilles by Hermes is also a very typical amber fragrance, as the name reminds, where labdanum is in accord with vanilla and benzoin, with a base note of patchouli.

Ottoman Amber - The Merchant of Venice
Ottoman Amber – The Merchant of Venice

If you have the chance to find The Merchant of Venice brand in a serious perfumery shop in Italy or France, or at Harrods in London,  look for Ottoman Amber, part of the Nobil Homo collection, a very delicate and refined woody oriental with a beautiful amber note of labdanum. Like all the fragrances of this niche house, the bottle is superb and classy, and the juice is outstanding.

I wish you a wonderful weekend, full of sun and love,  and amber for the lucky ones!





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