The most fascinating aspect of perfumery is the building blocks – the familiar (and often unfamiliar) materials that come together to create something entirely new. For me, I am endlessly beguiled by the way in which a singular material can, not only be so versatile in its use, but also add nuances to a fragrance that are so far removed from the material when experienced in isolation. One could call this magic, but it’s not, it’s chemistry, and perfumery is a fusion between art and science, where the latter is used to convey meaning and emotion from the medium of smell.
For me it’s always been the synthetics that hold more interest than the naturals. Without synthetic materials (incl. isolates, captives and aroma chemicals) modern perfumery would smell a heck of a lot different. We just wouldn’t have the perfumes that we’ve had for the last 100 years or so – what we’d have is inconsistent naturals that, due to their own density and complexity, often lead to an opaque soup when blended together. Synthetics give the space and definition to these materials allowing them to compliment, contrast and extend each other. They pull the naturals apart and bring new dimensions into play.
One of my favourite synthetic materials is Ambroxan. OK, so it’s not a fancy material, nor is it a particularly expensive one. It doesn’t take 3,000 years to mature under moonlight on an exotic island. No, it doesn’t have to be expressed from the anal glands of unicorns (perfumery has always had a weird fascination with the contents of animal butts, tell me I’m wrong) by golden-locked virgins in the dead of night. But it is an incredibly useful and popular material, and it finds way into many modern fragrances in both prominent, and stealthy ways. I see it as a bit of a ninja – it swoops in quietly, bringing dimension and space to dense compositions allowing them to expand, giving them tremendous lift but also a fascinating mineral facet. To put it simply, Ambroxan is ‘the nuts’.
So what exactly is Ambroxan?
It’s a naturally-occurring terpenoid that is found within ambergris and is believed to be the component that gives ambergris its unique and distinct odour. Now, the problem with ambergris is that it’s not that easy to come by and when it is found it sells for extortionate amounts of money (seriously I plan to find some just to fund my retirement). Not to mention the fact that each piece smells different, dependent on how long it’s been bobbing along on the beautiful, briny sea. So it’s cheaper and easier to use Ambroxan to give an ambergris effect because it can be synthesised easily from clary sage (specifically from sclaerol, a clary sage by-product) making it scalable for the mass market.
So that’s what it is, but what does it smell like? Well I perceive it as a very silky, silvery material. It’s immediately evocative of the ocean but in a purely mineral way – it doesn’t posses an aquatic character, but one does get the impression of salt and wet stones. There’s also a sweetness to Ambroxan – a transparent, glittering and crystalline feel, as well as a soft, skin-like woodiness. It’s a fascinating, multi-faceted material that can be pulled in many directions, but it’s also tremendously diffusive, adding an expanse to fragrances, creating space, in which beautiful nuances can dance. I told you it was the nuts!
Here are just a few examples of where Ambroxan works its magic, sorry, I mean its science, beautifully.
Pure Ambroxan: Molecule 02 & Escentric 02
Escentric Molecules’ Molecule 02 was actually the inspiration for this piece because it presents Ambroxan in not one, but two unique ways. For those of you not familiar with Eccentric Molecules, the concept of the brand is simple: fragrances are launched in binary pairs consisting of a ‘Molecule’ fragrance and an ‘Escentric’ fragrance. The Molecule of the pair is simply an aroma chemical diluted in alcohol, presenting the material in isolation, whilst the Escentric of the duo is that same material showcased within a more traditional perfume composition. Some argue that this is a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ but I think it’s actually rather educational because sniffing the Molecule allows one to understand the character of the material, unveiling its facets, which in turn, helps one dissect the Escentric, creating a greater understanding of how the material is practically used within perfumery. For me there’s a real sense of being able to pick out the specific building block and seeing how it fits into the overall construction of the scent. So I say ‘pfft’ to new clothes.
In the case of Molecule 02, the scent is, well, the scent of Ambroxan. It has a thin, mineral quality that is barely perceptible on skin, but it does have a radiant sillage that coats one in a sweet, marine odour. With the first spray, Molecule 02 gives the impression of clean pool water, all clear and shimmering, but as quickly as it appears *poof* it’s gone. Molecule 02 does not wear like a traditional perfume because it is not a traditional perfume – it is one singular material diluted in alcohol so it behaves differently on the skin. It doesn’t follow the trajectory of a top, middle and base, instead it treads a linear path, disappearing and reappearing throughout the day. It hovers above the skin too, surrounding one in a glistening glow that really is like nothing else.
Escentric 02 however, is definitely a more traditional perfume. 13.5% of its formula is Ambroxan (the maximum amount usable before the material starts to crystallise), but the rest is hedione , a gin and tonic accord, Australian lemonade and many other things. It smells smooth, with an endless freshness. There’s bite from the gin and tonic, but also a soft powdery quality that is evocative of iris. The Ambroxan takes a back seat, providing a touch of sweetness, but for the most part it just provides power, driving the fragrance up into the air in a whoosh of marine-like muskiness, giving it that aura-like quality found so prominently in Molecule 02. It’s blissful.
Molecule 02 & Escentric 02 – 100ml/£76
Marine Ambroxan: Eau des Merveilles
Ambroxan is the backbone of marine fragrances and perhaps one of the most resplendent examples of this is Eau des Merveilles by Hermès. This fragrance is all about ambergris, in fact, it was inspired by the material and intends to recreate the smell of it, without actually using any of the real thing. Created by perfumer Nathalie Feisthauer, Eau des Merveilles blends candied oranges, elemi and pepper with Ambroxan to create a pyrotechnic display of citrus and marine notes. It’s as if one is smelling the sea, but also the stars reflected in it too. There is simply nothing else like it and the use of Ambroxan really amps up the mineral facet, brining an entirely new dimension to the citrus. In fact, Eau des Merveilles is my favourite Hermès fragrance and probably in my top ten fragrances of all-time. How’s that for an accolade?
Eau des Merveilles – 50ml/£76 – 100ml/£105
Cerebral Ambroxan: Baccarat Rouge 540
I think we can all agree that Francis Kurkdjian is one of the greatest living perfumers. He doesn’t not think about or create perfume like anyone else. Take his Baccarat Rouge 540 (pictured here is the Extrait) for example, a fragrance inspired by the red crystals found in Baccarat chandeliers. The fragrance is crafted around three accords, each of which celebrates an integral facet of the manufacturing process for Baccarat crystal: mineral, fire and craftsmanship. Kurkdjian stated that he wanted to create a “graphic” fragrance that represents both the density and transparency of crystal and he used Ambroxan as a key player to represent his idea of crystals.
The key components of Baccarat Rouge 540 are Ambroxan and ethyl maltol – two polar opposite materials that are used here to create a strong identity, one that is half candy floss and half salty sea breeze. The ethyl maltol represents the fire required to heat sand into crystal and within the fragrance it presents a sense of sweet strawberry syrup, an effect that Kurkdjian calls “burnt strawberry jam”. To me, it’s almost novel to use such a material within a luxury fragrance, after all many designer and drugstore scents are built around a central core of ethyl maltol, wafting with huge clouds of burned sugar and candy floss. But in Baccarat Rouge 540 the sugar is served as decadent and luxurious, tempered by a touch of saffron to cut through the sweetness, making for a more upscale affair.
The ambergris accord is there to provide the airflow through which the fire moves. It’s the part of the fragrance that creates the sillage – the trail that carries the rest of the notes way up into the air. The effect is a strange, sticky marine impression that feels absolutely massive but also pale and distant. It lasts for an absolute age and once everything else has flown from the skin, what’s left is a delicate wisp of slightly sweetened brine, darkened by the mushroom-like and dirty facets of Evernil. It’s not quite aquatic, well not in the traditionally fresh and ozonic sense, but it is marine-like in a deep and oceanic way, almost like some fancy piece of ambergris candy sold exclusively at Fortnum & Masons for an extraordinary price.
Baccarat Rouge 540 is Francis Kurkdjian’s masterpiece.
Baccarat Rouge 540 Extrait – 70ml/£290
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