What is amber?

When I started learning about perfumery, this question initially perplexed me. You often see amber in the list of a perfumes notes and so I assumed that you could just purchase amber as one would rose, sandalwood etc.

There are indeed a number of online shops that sell amber oils and so it’s easy to think that there is an actual essence. Further investigation reveals that these are blends of quite a number of aromatic materials. So, what is amber?

Physically, amber is a fossilised tree resin. The tree initially exudes the resin through breaks in the bark, this resin falls to the ground and becomes buried. Over millions of years it hardens and becomes fossilised. This is the amber we are familiar with in jewellery.

amber jewellery

Amber jewellery photo from ‘the jewelry blog’

Some essential oil suppliers do supply an amber oil which comes from these fossilised tree resins, however, the aroma is often not particularly pleasant. One supplier was kind enough to warn me prior to purchase that the amber oil they sold smelt like bitumen. Eden Botanicals has managed to find a pure amber oil that apparently smells great and is produced by a process called dry distillation – on my list to try!

Tree resin

Tree resin

Overall, the word amber when used in perfumery is referring to an effect rather than an actual ingredient. It is used to describe an accord that has a sweet, rich, warm and balsamic aroma. Each perfumer or company will blend their own amber accord to evoke the warm, sensual, golden glow of the actual resin.

As I don’t use synthetics, I can’t comment on what ingredients a perfumer who uses synthetics may use to blend an amber accord. However, for the natural perfumer there are 3 core ingredients upon which an amber accord can be made. These are: Benzoin, Labdanum and Vanilla.

Benzoin – comes from a species of tree in the styrax genus, either styrax tonkinensis or styrax benzoin. It has a sweet, warm vanilla like aroma and is great as a fixative. (Be aware that Benzoin can cause skin sensitivity in some individuals and that the crude gum should not be used).

Labdanum – is a sticky, thick resinous substance from the Spanish cistus ladanifer. Tradionally it was gathered by combing the thighs and beards of sheep and goats after they had grazed on the cistus bushes. It is useful as a fixative and has an amazing ambery, warm, rich, leathery, smoky aroma. There is something deeply mesmerising, familiar, comforting and magical about the aroma of labdanum and for me this is the key ingredient in an amber accord.

cistus ladanifer (species of rock rose)

Cistus ladanifer (also known as rock rose)

Vanilla – we all know the aroma of vanilla! For perfumery purposes, the Madagascan Vanilla Bourbon has a high vanillin content which lends a rich, sweet, balsamic aroma.

Vanilla Beans

Vanilla Beans

Mandy Aftel in her book ‘Essence and Alchemy’ has a nice basic amber accord recipe based on these 3 ingredients.

From there other accent notes can be added to differentiate amber accords if desired, for example, small amounts of floral essential oils can be used for floral ambers, frankincense can be used for  mysterious incense ambers, juniper berry can create a drier amber, clary sage is also beautiful in amber accords due to it’s amber like aroma and ambrette seed can add a musk component.

Hopefully I have shed a little light on amber for those who may be bamboozled like I once was!