While working on my next review, I came across this common misunderstanding once again, on fragrantica website surprisingly, so I must rant for a second haha. Because they should know better even if it IS a common mixup.
Amber and ambergris are two basenotes that are found in many perfumes across the board, from drugstore classics to high end luxury fragrances. While they both fall into the same category of musky animalic smells, these two notes are very different things and come from two very different sources.
Ambergris has been getting in the spotlight lately with quite a few viral posts and even its own documentary because of what it is. And what is that? Whale vomit. Yes, you read that right. It’s material that has be regurgitated by sperm whales and can fetch up to $50,000 USD per kilo or more for the high grade stuff!!! A big part of the diet of sperm whales consists of squid. But squid have very sharp beaks that can cut the intestines of the whales during digestion, so the sperm whales produce a waxy substance that coats the beaks so they can pass through safely. It’s somewhat debated on which end of the whale the ambergris is actually excreted, but the general consensus is that it is excreted through the mouth.
Fresh ambergris is black, sticky, and very fecal smelling and is not what’s used in perfumery. But after it has been floating in the ocean for many years, up to 20 years or more, the sun and salt water bleaches it out to white. The texture goes from sticky to waxy and the scent mellows out to a sweet, salty, musky fragrance that plays on the same part of the human brain as pheramones, which is one reasons it is so appealing in perfumes. White ambergris is worth so much is because of all the time it takes to age to the point that it can be used. It’s also been consumed since time immemorial by some cultures in teas and traditional medicines.
Fossilized amber is ancient pine sap that has turned to stone. Many times insects or other remnants of ancient life, such as feathers, are found trapped and fossilized as well inside the amber. As we all know, these stones are highly prized in jewelry. But fossilized amber in perfumery is only a fantasy. These stones are not actual materials used in fragrances. As such, “amber” is considered a fantasy note and is typically an accord comprised of labdanum, vanilla, and benzoin but can also include other resins and balsams.
While vanilla is a very common fragrance many people are familiar with, benzoin and labdanum are less so. Benzoin smells a lot like a mixture of unsweetened vanilla and woody cinnamon. Labdanum smells like a muted combination of turpentine, pitch tar, cinnamon, musk, and grass with leathery and sweet nuances. While this may not sound appealing by this description, it’s actually a gorgeous smell and one of my favorite notes in perfumes. I even bought labdanum absolute (pure extract) just so I’d have some. It’s thick and sticky like pine resin, but instead of coming from pine trees, it come from Cistus or commonly called the “rock rose”.