Perfume at its best is a slow-burning romance. Once the first volatile rush has fizzed away, what lies beneath determines a perfume’s true character. The deeper, more intimate base notes become one with your skin, so that the lingering, lived-in sillage you leave behind is now the signature that defines you.
Currently, the love affair is with amber, which has all but taken over from musk as the bedrock of the new oriental fragrances. Its scent is polarising: not everyone likes the powdery sweetness many amber-based fragrances bring. Yet used judiciously, its honeyed warmth is the thread that harmonises virtually all other perfume ingredients, from citrus to floral and woody.
Unsurprisingly, perfumers themselves have an unusually emotional rapport with this softly confident element. “Amber is the loyalty molecule,” perfumer Azzi Glasser believes. “It has longevity and a soulful, addictive quality. Smell it and everything in the world is right.” Perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek agrees. “In a world of uncertainty, the sweetness of amber goes straight to the heart. It’s a warm blanket evoking safety and harmony while still allowing room for excitement.”
For synesthesiacs who see scent as colour, amber has an opulent golden glow. However, although its origins are maritime, it has nothing to do with the fossilised resin that pebbles Baltic beaches. Until the early 20th century, ambergris – the “grey amber” disgorged or excreted by the sperm whale – was used prodigiously in fine perfume. Formed in the whale’s digestive tract to parcel the sharp squid beaks it feeds upon, these fatty faecal lumps float on the ocean to become oxidised, bleached, seasoned and matured by sun and brine until they eventually wash ashore. The longer ambergris is “cured”, the sweeter its scent. The result is one of nature’s most sublime alchemical anomalies. What is literally excrement transmutes into an unforgettably beautiful aroma, as I discovered over lunch with perfumer Roja Dove. There, next to the pepper mill in an unassuming brown glass jar, were shards of what might have been rock or bone – chips off a block ready to be tinctured in alcohol. The scent – at first farmyard, then slightly salty, sweet and haylike – was at once fresh, earthy and curiously comforting. This stuff lodges in the nose and the memory – perfect criteria for a “fixative” intended to ensure a scent has legs.
First sold in Europe in the 15th century, when its weight was measured in gold, and known to the Victorians as “pearls of the sea”, what amounts to a beachcombed treasure trove has always come at a price: current rates start at around £45,000 per kg because the older the piece, the better the quality. In 1905, the legendary François Coty hit upon a cost-effective alternative to his (long-gone) Ambre Antique. Thus, the blend of leathery labdanum (from cistus or rockrose), smoky, resinous benzoin and velvety-sweet vanilla became perfumery’s new “amber” accord. Today, a range of synthesised molecules work alongside the “naturals” to give modern scents their fresh or earthy ambery character. Derived from labdanum, ambroxan is particularly prized as a resinously complex scent in its own right, as championed by Geza Schoen in his Escentric Molecules 02 (£70 for 100ml EDP), which contains nothing else.
It’s also ambroxan that mellows the dark, dried fruits of James Heeley’s Phoenicia (£170 for 100ml extrait de parfum) and the spiced blackcurrant in Reine de Nuit (£325 for 30ml extrait de parfum) from Byredo’s Night Veils collection to a liqueur-like intensity. It’s the plush, easy opulence in Van Cleef & Arpels’ leathery Ambre Impérial (£126 for 75ml EDP) from the Collection Extraordinaire, and it’s a breath of downy velvet in Serge Lutens’ L’Haleine des Dieux (£480 for 50ml parfum) from his Gold collection. It’s the safety word behind the smoky, leathery danger of Laurent Mazzone’s Cicatrices (£225 for 100ml extrait de parfum). And with patchouli, moss and fir balsam, it’s the earthy spirit that energises Tellus (£150 for 100ml EDP) from Liquides Imaginaires – an exciting label that lives up to its name by using more imagination than many.
As well as tantalising leather and woods, ambroxan also makes a sensual bedfellow for more delicate floral notes: with orange flower, lemon and myrrh, it’s the endless sunbaked landscape of Big Sky (£80 for 50ml parfum) from Roads’ Africa collection; and with orange blossom and jasmine in Profumi del Forte’s By Night (£168 for 100ml EDP), amber’s fresher, lighter facet becomes silken. “Whereas musk is clean, amber is the new freshness,” observes perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. Its suede-like side also enhances the serene powderiness of Ormonde Jayne’s Vanille d’Iris (£90 for 50ml EDP) and gently teases out the cool lavender of Annick Goutal’s Ambre Sauvage (£166 for 75ml EDP). In Terry de Gunzburg’s Ombre Mercure Extrême (£235 for 100ml extrait de parfum) it partners violet, iris and patchouli in an exotic chypre accord.
“Good amber is an old beauty that lingers around the corners of small streets in St Germain,” says Lyn Harris, aka Perfumer H who, in addition to her bespoke fragrances (from £15,000 for 100ml EDP), creates five editions each fashion season and the Laboratory Editions collection (all from £195 for 100ml EDP) the complete formula of which costs £2,000. In dark, woody Velvet (£175 for 100ml EDP), ambrarome is the feral, almost faecal molecule offsetting the softness of iris, violet and mossy rose. Adding frankincense creates a divinely chic sluttishness.
After 25 years of creating scents for designers including Agent Provocateur and Bella Freud (whose amber-laced signature fragrance – £75 for 50ml EDP – appeared this year), Azzi Glasser has launched her own Perfumer’s Story limited edition of scents at Harvey Nichols. Among them is Amber Molecule (£95 for 30ml EDP), a love letter to her favourite ingredient. “Amber is supportive, but also has star quality – an instant addiction that I’ve brought to the fore to give it the status it deserves,” she says. With a soft feminine iris head, a voluptuous tuberose heart and vanilla-laced lusciousness at the base, this is the scent of a wily but passionate seductress. “Amber women are hot,” she says darkly. Her bespoke service (£15,000) promises to exploit this theory to the maximum.
You might think amber too exotic to be “British”, yet for her beautifully poised third fragrance Oxford (£80 for 100ml EDP) Ruth Mastenbroek chose it to evoke both the heritage and adventure epitomised by the dreaming spires of her undergrad days. Against a smoky whiff of Gitanes, galbanum’s green urgency and jasmine’s optimism chart the journey, while amber mingled with oakmoss harks back to the sweetness of home. “This is the scent of an awakening, that moment when you discover you can make your own life choices,” says Mastenbroek. Meanwhile, musician and writer Leo Crabtree reimagines Britain’s nautical past with his Come Hell or High Water triptych for Beaufort. The blood and gunpowder of 1805 (£95 for 50ml EDP), the year of Trafalgar, is pure drama. But even more thrilling is a sea-spray accord that bears an uncanny similarity to natural ambergris.
So what of the real thing? Rare and costly, ambergris is seldom used these days. What an utter joy then to meet Roja Parfums’ Great Britain (£1,250 for 100ml parfum). Commissioned as an installation scent for the UK’s Great Festival of Creativity last year, Dove has now bottled his poem of great oaks, open spaces, green leather benches in the Commons, rose gardens and Cornish violets. And, as we are an island, there is breezy, salty ambergris. To call this a whale of a scent would do injustice to its infinite subtlety. This perfect amber chypre blooms on skin and its gentle presence is felt for days. As Dove says: “Ambergris displays a wonderful intimacy, as when you pull aside a scarf to kiss a lover’s soft, warm neck. It is not merely sexual, but sensual.” This amber, it seems, is forever.