What Even IS That Amber Note In All Of My Fragrances?

Last time I checked, amber was like, a rock.
Publish date:
March 19, 2015

So are we all just going to stand around and pretend like we get what the “amber” note is in all of our fragrances? Because last time I checked, amber was like, a rock.

A few months ago, I felt like all I was writing about was fragrances, so I pulled back a bit. I love covering perfumes, but I constantly feel like I’m thisclose to being a One Trick Pony, and I don’t want to seal my own fate. Hey, at least I smell good.

But, one question you guys have asked me a lot in my various fragrance articles over the past couple years, and one that I have had myself, is what the hell is the amber note that is included in so many of our favorite scents?

Amber is (and I know you know this, but) fossilized tree sap that has been hardened into a stone. So, not exactly the most fragrant thing in the world. Have you ever held a piece of amber, or an amber pendant? No scent there. But it keeps on popping up in our perfumes, usually at the base. So what gives?

Most fragrance notes are created by extracting oils from whatever the scent is built from, flowers, herbs, fruits, whatever else. From there, they’re added to, built upon, and often times, combined with synthetics to heighten and extend the scent and stay power. But, last I checked, you can’t exactly extract anything from a rock. Under the right conditions, you can burn amber and extract an amber oil which has a musky pine scent, but that’s not what shows up in our fragrances today, because fossilized amber produces very little scent in the first place.

So here’s your answer: The amber note in a perfume is basically a blend scent, made to emulate how fossilized amber looks. Stay with me here. In the same way that we call herbaceous scents “green” because they’re reminiscent of fern and grass and the like, we refer to amber as such because the blend of scents is usually warm, calming, and maybe even a little sensual, like the color amber. So instead of recreating the little smell that fossilized amber emits, amber is supposed to emulate the way amber makes you feel.

AND THIS IS WHAT I AM ALWAYS TELLING YOU. Perfumes are the real world intersection of witchcraft, alchemy, and love potion. They can set a mood, evoke a memory. A good fragrance can drive you crazy in the best ways! Or the worst ways. Like…actually crazy. Fragrances can make you feel in ways that no other beauty product can.

But back to it. Amber is a blend of Benzoin, an oil from the Styrax Benzoin tree that is reminiscent of vanilla, Labdanum, a resin collected from a certain species of shrubs that is equal parts woody, leathery, and sweet, and then finally, Vanilla itself. Amber, as a note, is soft, warm, and has an approachable, mellow sweetness that is softened more than a vanilla or even a tonka bean would be.

Amber was originally created to recreate the scent of Ambergris, which is (this is about to get nasty so, sorry) a jelly secretion from the digestive system of sperm whales. When freshly, um, released from the whale, it has a strong, unpleasant, marine odor, but once it floats around the ocean for years at a time, it hardens, and acquires a pleasant, sweet, earthy smell. Perfumers scramble to get their hands on the material not only because of the scent itself, but because it also works as a fragrance fixative, or an agent to showcase the other notes of the scent and make them last longer on the skin.

Trouble is, around only 1% of sperm whales actually secret ambergris, and when they do, the odds of it making it to shore without it being destroyed in the ocean are slim, so it’s extremely expensive, leading perfumers to recreate it. Thus, we have amber.

Amber as a note also works as a fixative, not in exactly the same way as ambergris does. Being a typical base note, amber helps anchor the other scents, complimenting them, softening the edges of the brighter notes throughout at the top of the scent, and making them wear better for longer, giving the scent more longevity. Amber combines the best parts of your typical base notes like vanilla, tonka bean, leather, sandalwood, balsam, patchouli, and streamlines them (while typically still being paired with them.)

You don’t have to look very far to find a fragrance that includes amber because it’s in basically all of them. If you’re looking for a scent that really showcases the note, check out Amber & Patchouli by Jo Malone, Prada Amber, L’eau D’ambre Extreme by L’Artisan Parfumeur, and literally anything by Thierry Mugler.

SO do you guys prefer amber in your fragrances? Or do you just let it do what it does and rely on it to lock your scent down at the base? More important, what are you wearing right now? Tell me in the comments. What other beauty questions are you dying to have answered? Tell me those, too, because THAT is what I'm here for. And also do you like my haircut.

Tynan is lurking on Twitter @TynanBuck.