A is for Amber

This is part one of a series of posts I’m working on that will serve as an introduction to, and history of, the big, wonderful world of perfume, and will cover notable ingredients, brands, people, places, and more. I hope you can tag along for the ride.

What is amber?

Amber is a wonderfully complex scent, and is probably my favourite fragrance note. It’s named after (you guessed it) amber, the odourless fossilised resin, but isn’t made from it. Traditionally, amber in perfumery means an accord based around three basic ingredients: benzoin, a tree resin with a sweet, slightly medicinal smell; labdanum, a flower extract with a sticky, leathery scent that smells to me like black-hearted honey; and vanilla. Unlike in this note’s early days in the late 19th century, most amber perfumes today probably contain none of the above ingredients (for all sorts of reasons), but they do maintain the rich and sweet scent of this iconic accord. This base can be accompanied by all manner of other notes, including woods, florals, oud, spices, fruits, tobacco, and many more – it’s a very versatile base for a perfume.

Because amber is quite hard to describe in words, here are a few popular ambery perfumes you can test in stores quite easily: Paco Rabanne 1 Million, Prada Candy, Hermès L’Ambre des Merveilles, and Mugler Alien. They all take rather different angles on amber, but you’ll be able to get an idea of what they have in common. It’s worth noting that amber is generally more appropriate for wearing in the evening or during cold weather.

Amber’s changing definition

On a side note, you will be hearing the term amber a lot more in the next few months and years, as it’s been chosen as a replacement for the perfume term oriental, which was for a long time used to describe fragrances based on ingredients found in the Middle and Far East (such as benzoin, sandalwood, frankincense, patchouli, and spices). Though the term was never meant to cause offence within the context of perfumery, and still doesn’t for most people, the industry is beginning to pre-emptively change it.

My favourite amber perfumes

There have been some really magnificent amber perfumes over the years. A few personal favourites are Hermès Ambre Narguilé (delicious), Guerlain Shalimar (classic but not old-fashioned), Goldfield & Banks Desert Rosewood (spicy woods and resins), Louis Vuitton Ombre Nomade (addictive sweet oud and incense), Matiere Premiere Encens Suave (expensive incense), Bond No. 9 Dubai Amber (oud with a little pungency), and Fort & Manlé Amber Absolutely (strange-but-fun fruity amber). What I love about amber is its cosiness and rich intensity – ambery perfumes often can be as good for a quiet day at home as they are for a big night out. I think everyone should have at least one amber perfume in their fragrance collection!