Friday, November 21, 2008

What the heck is Ambergris oil anyways!? (E-bay)

So we have all been on Ebay, seen the auctions for "ambergris" oil, and those of us who know something on the subject say "ambergris oil?? how can one distill ambergris!". Well, its not possible, and ambergris seems to be quite an enigma. On the left of the photo we have a vial of "ambergris oil" from ebay, to the right, ambergris tincture 3%, aged since sept 18th, and finally in the center we have a piece 0.8g ambergris white/grey. The ambergris was purchased from a merchant who has been selling ambergris to the fragrance industry for two decades.
Stage one of cracking the mystery: first I will try to tell you my observations on the solid ambergris and its tincture:
  • A hard, grey/white solid substance, which can be broken if "snapped" between the fingers with moderate strength
  • Not something that can be distilled into an oil
  • The tincture is actually a light brown/golden colour
  • Ambergris is not something that provides a sweet note, see: benzoin
  • Not the same as Indian "amber", a mix of benzoin and other resins
  • Not "the thing in Creed that makes it smell good"
  • Not a fragrant marvel by itself, that piece seen in the photo has a somewhat salty, mineral, sour and slightly mossy smell - the same as its tincture. Its not something that is immediatley pleasant on its own at all, and definitely not the holy grail scent of its folklore.

So what is this "ambergris oil" stuff that we keep seeing on ebay ? Is it just a scam for us to waste 60 - 300$ on? To tell you the truth, I'm not 100% sure what it is. Is it made with real ambergris ? All I can tell you is my observations and hypothesis:

  • Some aspects of the odour profile of the oil are very similar to the ambergris sample, it has a very strong sour, mineral fragrance
  • The main difference is that the ambergris oil also has a very sweet smell (about 80% of the odour profile), which is totally absent from the natural ambergris in solid and tincture form. The sweetness is a very difficult to decifer accord, but I would say it has aspects of Tonka/Coumarin and Benzoin resin.
  • I also sense in the oil, some spices, such as the suggestion of cinnamon, though not the note of natural cinnamon bark, more like cinnamic alcohol, and also spices and herbs such as oregano and myrtle.
  • The oil is of course, a viscous liquid, definitely not the result of the processing of the actual ambergris, which is a hard, dry, solid substance, similar to a weak, crumbly stone.

Thoughts: Though I do have samples of Indian Ambers at home, of many different varieties none of them smell like this oil. This oil is something completely unique and actually most similar to Ambre Sultan of Serge Lutens. The one thing that sticks out, perpetuating the mystery, is the very distinct natural ambergris sourness that is present in the oil.

The Verdict: If I had to guess, these "ambergris oils" are "amber" type attars, in which natural ambergris has either been infused, filtered, or the tincture added. The particular one which I have is a beautiful fragrance, it is intensely sweet and the heavy coumarine note actually seems to amplify the natural ambergris note.

Worth the money?: As a perfume composition I'd say it is, the one I've got is absolutely beautiful. As long as you buy this for the fragrance, you are okay - just don't be fooled into thinking this is the product of ambergris or that it is 100% pure in any way.


Vetivresse said...

Excellent post. You answered some questions of mine. I too possess this ambergris oil (from Agarscents Bazaar) and the tincture from a Swiss perfumer. The sweetness is the knot that needs to be unraveled.

Parfum said...

Hey, thanks! I really wanted to clear up some of the mystery becaues I know alot of people are confused, I still am but I use to be much more in the dark as well! My ambergris oil is actually not from agarscents - does yours smell similar to my description? perhaps they are from the same wholesaler at some point on the chain. Care to trade tiny samples? I left you a message concerning the Khaltat Al Muluk as well in another reply, I could decant you a bit in a vial if you were interested in trying it out, I've got lots.

- Matt

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember "ambergris" that I bought back in the early '70's? It was sold by a popular perfume company and for the life of me, I cannot remember the company. It was sold under the origianl name "Ambergris." They stopped making it because whales were being slaughtered for it back in those days. Now I guess they find ambergris laying on beach, which would account for the many different types there are. All my friends were wearing musk oil, I was the only one wearing Ambergris--kind of my signature scent. I bought some online a few years ago--not even close. It was a nice scent, but not the ambergris I am looking for. Can you help me out? The oil I got was a very dark ambergris.

J J said...

Hi "Anonymous", very "late to the party" here, (over 5mths in fact) so I doubt you'll ever even read this. But maybe others looking for same might (?), so here we go : The 70's "Ambergris" perfume you're after was from "Houbigant". (Unfortunately now long, long discontinued). And yes it was indeed a wonderful scent ! (Though I doubt they ever killed any whales for it. "Fresh" ambergris is totally useless for perfumery. It needs to undergo chemical changes under sun & sea for many years before it's any good).

Then @ Par: Fum. ... As for the ambergris oil, no idea if yours is in fact genuine (?). Although, it is in fact fully possible to make an oil version of a tincture so to speak. Same technique, many times over till oil is fully saturated with scent. These therefore usually attain a much stronger concentration & scent than the tinctures. Which are usually at the ideal 3% for use in perfumery, where it works it's magic as a fixative and "exaltant".
(And even if this is indeed the case of your oil. It does sound like it's adulterated with extra scent).
As far as the "sweet note" puzzle : I can guarantee you that ambergris (& it's tincture) does indeed have a sweet note. (And the heavenly ambery scent of it's reputation). However not all do. This is all down to the quality and age of the ambergris and/or tincture. ~ Of course all different pieces will have a slightly different scent profile to start with too. Usually the younger it is the more "oceanic" and animalicly pungent it will be (with no trace of sweetness or amber notes). But the more it ages, (& especially dependant of it's quality i.e black, grey, gold/tan, white etc.), the more it's sweet & amber notes will emerge. The glorious scent of myth, (& the selfsame they try replicate with oriental amber note perfumes).
The young and "greyer" pieces tend to have the least amber/sweet notes, and have more of the ocean & "pong" about them.
P.S. (On top of the required old age of the ambergris, the tincture itself also still needs to be aged before those notes will fully emerge ! ~ And even then, most apparent when sniffed off a blotter at "drydown" phase.)