Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair ..”
One of perfumery’s most ancient ingredients, amber is also one of the most mysterious and most confusing due to the semantics of its name. “An amber scent of odorous perfume” may have a variety of origins.
Firstly there is the resin exuded by certain trees to heal damage to their bark. This is the amber which catches vegetation and insects in its path and thousands of years later may end up, fossilised, as jewellery or used in interior decoration. Think of the vanished Amber Room in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo: a golden chamber entirely plated with sheets of amber, vanished since 1945.
“Pretty! In amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things we know are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.”
Gathered from incense trees and bushes this aromatic resin is deliciously complex in scent – warm, woody, spicy, sweet, smoky, creamy – and has been used for millenia to perfume the body and sweeten the air. At the desert mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Luxor you can see the terraces of incense bushes laid out 3,500 years ago, having been brought by ship up the Red Sea from Arabia.
The Egyptians originated that concept of the amber perfume that is still widely used in perfumery today, the word being loosely used to cover a wide spread of even vaguely oriental fragrances.
Then we have ambergris, or “grey amber” – that dingy waste matter of sperm whales, embalmed by sea salt and found occasionally floating on the surface of the oceans, or washed up by the tide anywhere between China and Wales. Named because its unique and pungent scent (when heavily diluted) is reminiscent of tree amber, ambergris was a wonder and a mystery to the ancients. They seem to have instinctively known it to have been of animal origin (the visceral smell) but classified it as dragon’s eggs, the sweat of the Titans or the tears of nymphs changed into birds:
“Around thee shall glisten the loveliest amber
That ever the sorrowing sea-bird hath wept.”
Its arousing and disturbing scent led to its being prized as an aphrodisiac to be taken internally as well as applied. Elizabeth Tudor’s favourite Robert Dudley is said to have swallowed ambergris with powdered pearls to increase his ardour. Two centuries later, Mme de Pompadour relied on it blended with celery and vanilla.
Ambergris is today the only animal ingredient legally used in Western perfumery as it is gathered with no risk or harm to the whale who has deposited his leavings and long sailed on.
“…the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore..”
But of course, due to the rarity of these whales, ambergris is today magnificently and prohibitively expensive. Its use in perfumery as a fixative gives wonderful tenacity – “her fingers touched me, she smells all amber” – as well as acting as a catalyst, bringing out the fullest potential of its fellow oils in a rich animalic sensual glow. A drop is all that is required, and may be amplified and backed up by other amber oils, both natural and synthetic.
Ambroxan is a synthetic molecule – “a strange, invisible perfume” – isolated in 1955 and (now branded as Cetalox) much used in the base notes of amber scents. What brought it to recent popular fame was Romano Ricci’s Not a Perfume which audaciously uses Ambroxan as its sole ingredient. A bold conception and highly effective.
Lastly, don’t get confused by the prescence of ambrette in a scent: this is an oil extracted from hibiscus seeds, used as a natural plant substitute for musk and because of its bitter-sweet, earthy animal odour has also been tarred with the amber brush.
No wonder that the 1940’s Kathleen Winsor named her bawdy Restoration heroine Amber – the word is redolent of luxurious sensual indulgence. I have to repeat in this context Joan Hickson’s discovery of a cat in the contemporary movie ’24 Hours To Noon’: “ah! there’s Amber: she’s forever in the beds….” .
The ancient Greeks called amber “elektron” from which we derive our word “electricity”, on account of the resin’s magnetic properties:
“Bright amber shines on his electric throne”.
Magnetic and electric it certainly is when stirring and warming the base of a sumptuous perfume.
Image from thehistoryblog.com