Profumum Ambra Aurea; Houbigant Ambergris

Amber (aka ambergris) is often utilized as a bit-player in perfume foundations, which gives the ingredient a chance to warm up and mellow out before the wearer starts to notice its presence. This time delay that perfumers often employ with amber can be crucial, as the initial impression one gets from a whiff of pure amber is a lot like what you’d expect a gob of goo hacked out of a sperm whale (which is then sun-baked for several years as it floats around on the surface of the ocean — I know! eeewww, right?) to smell like: organically raw, a bit sodden and musky, with the oddly sweet odor that is sometimes present during the process of mammalian decomposition.

Let’s say that again, and think perfume: whale loogie, mammalian decomposition. Are you getting the picture? Ambergris in perfume is one of those brainstorms that shouldn’t work but weirdly does, like Oil Futures . . . or bubble-gum ice cream.

This brings me to our two fragrances for the day — Ambra Aurea by Profumum, and Ambergris by Houbigant (a division of Alyssa Ashley).

The latter of the two is a discontinued fragrance that’s become somewhat of a cult obsession and can reasonably be held aloft as an example of a classic amber fragrance. It was created in 1973 in the days before synthetic ambers replaced the real thing (real ambergris is rare and prohibitively expensive), and it’s pretty much exactly what the title states: a perfume of authentic, oily ambergris coughed up from a sperm whale.

Houbigant Ambergris is sharp and a bit camphorous (moth-ballish) at the beginning, and because of its oily texture, it holds onto this initial stage for longer than your average contemporary brew. Three hours after applying, I still whiffed camphor off the shiny oil slick on the back of my hand. This is in marked contrast with Profumum’s Ambra Aurea, a contemporary amber that seems to eschew authentic ambergris for a high-quality allusion (though Ambra Aurea’s ingredient list includes grey amber, which is sometimes used as a euphemism for ambergris) — I can only assume it’s not genuine ambergris because it evaporated into my skin almost the moment it was applied, leaving no houbigant-type oil slick behind.

This is not a bad thing. Synthetics and/or approximations have made modern perfumery the art form it is today, and I’d rather my skin not be slicked with whale oil as I’m trying to get dressed in the morning — but what’s most fascinating about the contrast between the old and the new is how very much alike they are nonetheless. Ambra Aurea is warmer and cleaner, but only by fractions, and it does everything that a real ambergris should while exhibiting marginally better table manners in the process.

And in case you’re wondering, wearing a single focus amber (a soligoo, perhaps?) is a much different experience from an amber blend, such as Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute or Neil Morris’ Burnt Amber; whereas some amber blends can be honied and syrupy sweet, a single-focus amber is often dry and a bit bitter with a predominant musk quality. There’s none of the burnt sugars and dusty cocoas, no flowers, cinnamons or vanillas — oh, wait! There is vanilla, but it’s like the ghost of a vanilla, darker and somewhat spectre-ish and not something you’d choose to flavor the pudding.

Both Houbigant Ambergris and Profumum Ambra Aurea are faithful interpretations of ambergris, with each one reflective of the time period in which it was created. Houbigant Ambergris is dirtier through the body and a tad more medicinal at the drydown, while the new millennium Profumum Ambra Aurea chooses to turn down the volume on both the dirt and medicine as it chugs along, allowing for a toasted aroma to peek through before it finally extinguishes its flame.

The fragrant drydown of both lasts a good long time.

UPDATE:

I’ve received a couple of queries regarding the terminology used in this post, so I’m going to explain my reasoning behind the review above.

In my understanding, Amber, as it used in today’s perfumery, is either a synthetic or a natural compound, meant to mimic the odor of genuine Ambergris, as Amber itself is a fossilized plant resin (considered an actual gemstone) that, when heated and melted can produce an oil, but does not produce any oils that are suitable for perfumery.

Plant resin that is hardened but not fully fossilized is called Copal, not Amber. If it’s just a normal tree resin, then it’s just a normal tree resin and has nothing to do with actual Amber. There is no Amber tree.

Regarding botanical amber: what we often see classified as “essential amber oils” or “natural fragrant amber” is, instead, compounds of essential plant oils that are combined, often with sandalwood and/or patchouli, to create an approximation of the smell of Ambergris. It is not Ambergris, hence the short-form Amber as its designation.

I could be completely wrong in my assessment of the information available to me, but this is why I compared Profumum Ambra Aurea with Houbigant Ambergris, and why I believe their smell is so similar.

I will close with some info from the Perfume Shrine Blog:

“Natural ingredients are used to create an amber base without actual ambergris, meaning a perfume base that smells warm, erotic and sensual or simply an oil mix . . . Mandy Aftel in her book “Essence and Alchemy” suggests a simple amber base made from just three materials for the amateur perfumer: 30 drops of labdanum, 120 drops of benzoin, 6 drops of vanilla. Usually other accent notes are used in amber chords to differentiate the result and make it unique, ergo the abundance of different amber oils in the market. Some of the usual ingredients to use are vanilla, tonka bean, Peru balsam (sweet ambers), clove, cinnamon, Tolu balsam, sage, juniper (drier ambers), sandalwood, patchouli, olibanum (mysterious ambers), rose, jasmine or other flower essences in very small amount (more floral ambers).”

Again, it is my contention that natural amber bases are an attempt at approximating the rare and genuine Ambergris, then moving on from there — is it just me, or does it seem to be logical that the cheaper, plant-derived Amber would follow in the footsteps of the rare and exclusive Ambergris and not the other way ’round?

I hope this helps to clear up any confusion.

Comments

  • ScentScelf

    I have just learned of your blog, and am reading through entries — with great pleasure, I should add.
    Thanks to this entry, I am going to leave this day permanently marked with the coinage “soligoo” — too funny, and likely to stick for a while. (Ha! pun not intended, but I’ll let it ride…)

  • Nathan Branch

    Well hello! Always good to see new cars driving through the neighborhood. I trust you’ll be able to wash that soligoo off your windshield . . . I posted warning signs, but, you know, the neighborhood kids think it’s funny to pull the signs down and throw them in the bushes.