The classical amber in perfumery is a sweet, rich accord of labdanum and vanilla. It is a pure fantasy accord like fougère or chypre, and despite the fact that its name evokes the fabled material, ambergris, it does not attempt to reproduce this animalic marine scent. Perfumery amber is so called, because the golden color of the blend resembles the semi-precious amber jewel. Sweet and voluptuous, perfumery amber is quite versatile, and whenever one encounters a fragrance named Amber or Ambre, it is likely to be a warm, vanilla and labdanum based blend.
Labdanum, a resinous material obtained from the Mediterranean species of rockrose (Cistus ladanifer or Cistus creticus,) smells rich, leathery, smoky and sweet. Its warm incense undertone lends it a dusky, somber quality, while the top notes reminiscent of freshly cut wood offer an interesting bright counterpoint. Although a beautiful and complex material, it is heavy and opaque, with a tendency to easily overwhelm other facets of the fragrance. Yet, rounded out with vanilla and other sweet woody notes, labdanum based accords become radiant and sensual. While it is not the only material around which to create an amber note, it is one of the most classical.
An example of such a distinctive and famous accord is De Laire Ambré 83, a specialty base built around labdanum and vanilla. De Laire was an outfit devoted to making fragrances, but it was their unique and distinctive accords that made them much more famous (such as Mousse de Saxe found in many Caron fragrances.) Ambré 83 can be found in many legendary fragrances, from Coty to Guerlain. Guerlain Mitsouko relies on it to lend its base an autumnal golden glow, while in Chanel Bois des Îles, sweet amber softens the dry woods. Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan is a modern example of this classical idea, and its bold composition can be considered a gold standard for sweet labdanum based ambers. Another interesting recent amber perfume is Christian Dior Mitzah, in which the traditional Ambré 83 sensuality is interpreted in an airy, luminous manner.
Besides serving as a main accord, sweet amber is frequently used in oriental accords and floral compositions to accent their voluptuous quality. It is also essential for the classical chypre and fougère compositions, where it forms a beautiful marriage with musk and oakmoss. Caron Pour Un Homme is a great example of how a touch of warm amber can play up the velvety sweetness of lavender. At the same time, crisp, dry ambers like Ambroxan and its ilk are becoming far more common, as they offer a more transparent, brighter quality appreciated in today’s perfumery.
In niche fragrances, on the other hand, the classical ambers have seen quite a revival. It pairs beautifully with incense notes, which also serve as an important effect in a niche perfumer’s palette. Tom Ford Amber Absolute is an essay on Ambré 83 embellished with chocolate absolute. Annick Goutal Ambre Fétiche layers it abundantly with incense, in order to convey an opulent effect of gold brocade. This new family of dark, sweet ambers also proves that some ideas in perfumery are timeless for a reason—their abstraction allows us to fill in the blanks with our own imagination, fantasies and dreams.
Here are some other sweet amber fragrances (in order of my favorites):
Histoires de Parfums Ambre 411
Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Ambre Précieux
Hermès Ambre Narguilé
Armani Privé Ambre Soie
Parfums d’Empire Ambre Russe
L'Artisan Fragrances L’Eau d’Ambre and Ambre Extrême
Serge Lutens Rose de Nuit
I Profume di Firenzi Ambra de Nepal
E Coudray Ambre et Vanille
Lorenzo Villoresi Ambra
Photograph of amber stone that inspired perfume amber is from la-gem.com