Zeroing In

I’m finally zeroing in on my ambergris perfume. I worked my way through my aroma chemicals and naturals to see what reminded me of ambergris, the sea, the beach, and anything related to the ocean. I rounded up such goodies as nonyl alcohol, seaweed absolute, calone and about a dozen other things.

After acquiring “the egg,” a 50-gram piece of white ambergris, I had to ask myself whether I’m trying to duplicate the aroma of an ambergris tincture or a chunk of ambergris itself (they smell very different). Naturally, the tincture is going to be present, but the question is whether to draw it out or bend it in a raw ambergris direction.  I’ve decided to emulate the aroma of the egg. It has a peculiar marine quality that makes me think immediately of konbu, the seaweed used to make dashi, the basic broth that’s almost universal in Japanese and Korean cooking. However, it’s more complex than konbu and has a distinct animal quality which, of course, is what makes it so compelling.

When blending, I started with a 10% solution of ambroxan since I like the molecule and figured it would be a good background and would lend basic support. I added grisalva to reinforce the ambergris notes. Cyclamen aldehyde contributes substantially to the effect I’m going after and asserts a dry sea-like note. And then, of course, I add the ambergris—enough to get it to be clearly present. I tied together some of the notes with barely a trace of celery seed.

This morning I worked on making my creation better—more complex and projecting more.  I put 20 drops in each of eight test tubes and added a drop of various ingredients to each tube. I tried vetiveryl acetate for lift and it, in fact, did add a certain welcome lightness. In search of a green note, I added too much (one drop of 10% solution) galbanum and had to go back and make a 1% solution to work with. The galbanum did add an almost undetectable sparkle. I added a drop of my musk perfume to one of the test tubes and immediately smelt that I had added too much. I’m going to add the barest trace—enough to add an animal note, but not enough to be recognized; if blended carefully, there remains an aroma that could be mistaken for natural musk. Some grades of ambergris do indeed smell this way.

While the egg expresses no woody notes, I’ve encountered plenty of chunks of ambergris that do. I added a drop of 1% Laotian oud. It creates an effect—I get a sort of light headedness—without necessarily being strong enough to smell through everything else. My sense is that it’s being detected by the pineal gland, our atrophied second nose. I decided to keep it. I then added a drop of 28-year old cedar and got a subtle and intriguing wood note identifiable as cedar but not in any domineering way. Added that. I’m also including a bit of beeswax absolute for a delicate honey note. The honey note goes well with the added musk.

The top note is a bit confusing. When first applied, authentic ambergris tincture smells like isopropyl alcohol, giving the impression of rubbing alcohol—very delightful rubbing alcohol. This quickly subsides and transmutes into the classic ambergris aroma. I’d like to retain this as the authentic top note, but I fear people’s reactions. I’m certainly not going to add a top note outside of the ambergris paradigm. Citrus would be ridiculous. In fact, I don’t want to do anything that interferes with the authentic ambergris aroma.  

There, of course, remains the question of how much ambergris tincture to add and at what concentration. Most of my tinctures are 10% which is high for ambergris. Three percent is traditional. In classic perfumes, about 1% of a 3% solution is typical. What I find interesting, and need to explore, is that some solutions are better at lower concentrations. I’m going to make some 3% tincture and see how that works. I have to keep in mind that an ambergris perfume is almost unheard of—ambergris is used to heighten the expression of other ingredients while staying resolutely in the background. So, if I can get a 3% solution to project almost as much as a 10% solution, I can use more. I would like half the perfume to be tincture and the other half my chemical construction.

All this tincturing takes time—at least three months in the sun for a tincture to mature—and I need to predict how much to make. My 50-gram egg will make 500 ml. of 10% tincture or 1.65 liters of 3%. Enough for Brooklyn Perfume Company to make a lot of perfume.