Among the most ancient of perfume ingredients, resinous materials, trickling, gooey, sticky and mystical, still produce a fascination to the contemporary consumer.
Oozing in thick droplets from the deliberate cuts imposed on aromatic tree barks, like blood flowing out of the bloodstream, they hold the key to the vital force within the plant kingdom. And maybe that’s why they inspired man from time immemorial. Referenced in the Bible, as well as in various historical texts throughout different civilizations, from the Babylonias to the Romans, and the inhabitants of the Hindu valley, resins have captured the imagination and held it tightly.
Out of all of them, the most referential place is held for amber.
Amber, not to be confused with ambergris, an animal secretion from the intestinal wall of the sperm whale, is rather a resinous material with a beautiful colour that echoes the semi-precious stone of the same name.
The stone itslef comes from the fossilised resins from ancient trees, mostly evergreens, rich in terpenoids, and does not bear a specific scent itself. Attempts have been made to infuse it, so as to render a pale and ephemeral whiff of the clean pine-y smell that it must have retained from antiquity, but with very scarce and unmemorable results.
On the contrary, the term “amber” in perfumery usually refers to a warm, powdery and orientalised medley that is produced through the synergy of mainly labdanum, a sticky oleoresin derived by the rockrose plant growing on the beaches of the Mediterranean basin, and vanilla. Its incandescent, dark golden hue is what prompted the naming. In fact we have to thank the Arabs, who named it “anbar” back in the Middle Ages and then it was brought to Europe by the Crusaders, gaining traction in the 14th century.
The amber mix therefore has a rich history, even before the innovations of the 19th century, when it was first chemically recreated as a short-road to a warm effect, or the first decades of the 20th century when it gave rise to the family of Orientals, through its use in the classic and celebrated Guerlain’s Shalimar. It acts as a base note, projecting from the base upwards and tending to last on the skin the longest.
In Renaissance times alchemists and apothecaries used to mix various ingredients coming from the gums of plants and trees, with styrax (a tree resinoid from the Liquidamber orientalis tree) and benzoin (another tree resinoid of a different species of the styrax tree) to create “ambers”. Other perfumers later on also added Tolu balsam (a gum from a South American tree) or even tonka bean, a fruit resembling big beans which hides an almond scent full of warmth. Amber perfumes as a whole exude a soft, come hither scent that is enveloping and earthy, sometimes powdery or subtly woody. They’re cosy, sexy, beautifully suggestive without smelling too sweet.
Those intriguing alloys were said to possess almost mythical qualities, giving rise to the myth of aphrodisiacs, perfumes to entice the senses and produce an enhanced libido response. The name derives from the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, and the innuendo is therefore inherent.
Furthermore, the term “balsamic” is often used in the same breath as ambery or resinous. The reason is because balsams are sticky, indeed resin-like ingredients, from plants and non coniferous trees, which enter the composition of amber fragrances as well. This has the added benefit of evoking a languorous mood, and also to suggest a therapeutic effect. The Balm of Gilead is a common phrase that suggests such a use for “balsamic” scents, though it is stipulated that said Gilead Balm was actually based on a pistachio shrub variety. Various varieties of incense are also based on balsams and those have been used from time immemorial as a consecration to the gods, imparting a deep and spiritual subtext to them.
In practical terms it’s not particularly difficult to stumble upon a resinous and/or amber note in perfumery, even if you wander outside the realm of the Oriental Fragrance Family, since the materials give substance and tenacity to more volatile ingredients, such as essential oils of spices and herbs, of citrus oils and flower absolutes. The ambery materials mix very well with many of those ingredients. Mandarin and amber is a particularly attractive chord that reads as bright and sunny, while amber mixed with sandalwood and musk is definitely more animalic and dark. Mix amber with vetiver, from the roots of a Far Eastern grass, though, and you get an arresting contrapuntal tension between warm and cool!
But on the whole ambery and resinous mixes tend to smell rich and exotic, thus lending themselves best to people who seek out character and personality in their fragrances. If upbeat or vivacious, energetic mixes are your thing, or if you prefer the sweet succulence of gourmands, which reprise well-loved flavours of desserts, then amber and resinous fragrances might feel rather heavy and dark to you.
But despair not; given enough of an adventurous spirit, you might find yourself reaching for one or another in the seemingly endless variety which they encompass. There is Fragrance du Bois Amber Intense Parfum, decadent and complicated; Amber by Laboratory Perfumes, light and subtly evocative of human intimacy; Amber Cologne by Bortnikoff, elegant with its Old World freshness; Ambre 114, deliciously powdery and subtly spicy; and Ambra Calabria by Nishane, middle-eastern and redolent of the harems…not to mention many, many others.
These rich base notes of amber and resins help anchor everything down in your precious perfume, evaporating slowly, and dragging the more volatile materials into their own downward spiral, helping them stick for the goodnight kiss…In short: simply magical!
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