Woody ambers: the nasal invaders

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While rose and jasmine are media darlings, there is an entire family of aroma compounds whose inclusion in perfume messaging is inversely proportional to its presence in bottles and sillages. You smell them everywhere without knowing it, these mystery compounds. When, how and why did woody ambers invade perfumery? Here is our attempt at an answer for you: some facts, some history, and a healthy dose of subjectivity!

If you are a regular reader of Auparfum or Nez, you will have doubtlessly noticed that, despite a variety of profiles and backgrounds, most writers sharing their opinion of a perfume tend to resist the charms of what are known as “woody ambers” – despite the fact that their presence in compositions has been growing exponentially and seemingly unstoppably over the last few years. Some people may well exclaim: “Where’s the problem, why all the hatred? What a bunch of snobs!”
Before we set out to scrutinise this observation and analyse the situation, let’s take a moment to define them, these rampant molecules that are invading bottles everywhere while remaining little known and rarely mentioned.

Ambergris and Ambrox
The chapter of the book From Plant to Essence on woody ambers describes them as having a “generous sillage, ample olfactory volume, extraordinary staying power.” 
The amber note in perfumery, which is often confused with the resin of the same name, actually started life with ambergris, secreted by the sperm whale’s digestive system into the sea where it is transformed by the sun and water to produce a rare and therefore highly valuable substance (worth dozens of thousands of euros a kilo), encountered haphazardly on the coast. Its aroma, highly sought after by perfumers down through the centuries, is deep, complex, both animal and mineral, woody and salty. It is used as a base note to add warmth, tenacity and texture to (luxury) fragrances. In 1949, chemists succeeded in reproducing Ambrox, naturally present in ambergris, using clary sage. Now valued at 500 euros a kilo, it offered the first affordable substitute capable of bringing a dry, woody, persistent dimension to compositions. Iso E Super, a hybrid structure midway between Ambrox and an ionone smelling of crystal-clear and clean cedar, made its appearance in 1973. Since then it has become what could almost be called a perfumery solvent, frequently used to “envelop” formulas thanks to its outstanding performance and unbeatable price. 
In olfactory terms, so far so good. Although these early compounds are classified as “woody ambers”, they can be considered as soft and comfortable compared to the others that followed.
Critics and other market observers at the time are highly likely to have noted the sudden prevalence of these new base accords which were changing the perfume landscape, but it is difficult to judge whether they reacted negatively since very little trace of their opinions remains.
Following this first wave of popularity a number of unexpected success stories emerged: Bois d’argent by Dior in 2004, a niche blockbuster, is full of Ambroxan; Terre, the flagship men’s fragrance Hermès released in 2006, is built on Iso E Super.

Mainstream success
Over the years, chemists at the composition houses constantly kept up their research work, in quest of increasingly potent compounds, mainly to offer perfumers technical solutions to the problems of tenacity – how long perfume remains on the skin – as well as sillage – how far away it can be detected – since consumers are increasingly concerned by these two characteristics. Woody ambers linger on the skin and textiles for a particularly long time since they evaporate very slowly due to their size, and they are hydrophobic.
But an important factor at play with these modules that are synthetic and artificial (i.e. entirely invented by humans, even though they are occasionally obtained via biosynthesis, meaning without petrochemicals) is their price-to-impact ratio: it costs far less to obtain the same impact as with ambergris, sandalwood and most natural ingredients because they only need to be used in very small doses to be perceptible. In short, they provide the perfect technical tool to optimise formulas, at lower cost and with a guaranteed result.

Initially used in light touches to improve persistence, around ten years ago the compounds become increasingly present (and identifiable) in most of the big-hitting men’s fragrances in mainstream perfumery (Bleu, Invictus, Sauvage, etc.) as well as the niche market (Aventus, Baccarat rouge 540, Oud Ispahan, etc.). They have even found their way into compositions designed for women where they are less obvious but now fairly common.
This would be a good moment to introduce an analogy suggested several years ago in a review when the use of woody ambers was compared to the path taken by Autotune software in the music industry: originally designed to discreetly correct a note’s pitch (in other words, to make a voice sing more in tune), after Cher’s 1998 hit Believe it went on to become a new aesthetic artifice, modulating voices and giving them a supernatural quality. Although it can be used with intelligence and creativity (a rare occurrence), it has since invaded hip hop and pop and become an ad nauseam presence.
Woody ambers therefore started out, like Autotune, as a tool that on the one hand remedies a lack of means (or talent?), and on the other creates a new, contemporary style that meets the demand for a certain level of performance, a recognisable signal which becomes a sort of prerequisite, at least for the majority of people: in both aspects, we arrive at the perfect equation of what defines mainstream. And the people who don’t appreciate them would therefore appear to be snobs.

Nasal invasion
It really is not too much of a stretch to say that what we are seeing today is an invasion of woody ambers: one in two bottles sent to the Nez editorial team is crammed with them; if we’re lucky, they arrive in our nostrils after a few hours, if not it’s at the first spray. On the streets and public transport they are the only thing you can smell – the odour is so strong you don’t even need to open your nostrils, it will reach them anyway! And then there are all the detergents, fabric softeners and deodorants that make abundant use of the compounds with their impressive staying power so the “safe and clean” message can be delivered for as long as possible. It has become its own genre, an unavoidable presence, a new state of mind.
The problem is that they produce a feeling of nasal burning, the impression of a physical, almost painful, intrusion in your nostrils, bringing to mind “spikes piercing the perfume’s structure and boring into the sinuses,” as Olivier R.P. David described it in his article for Nez.[1] See the article Woody Ambers published in Nez, the Olfactory Magazine – #07 – The Animal Sense This characteristic has earned them the nickname of “spiky woods” as Lionel Paillès mentioned in 2015 in Cosmetic Mag: “These woody and vibrant ambers (Cedramber, Karanal, Norlimbanol, etc.) – certain bloggers describe them, rather warily, as “spiky woods” – underpin all today’s men’s fragrances.” Denyse Beaulieu chose to analyse the trend in her excellent 2016 piece on her blog Grain de musc [2]https://graindemusc.blogspot.com/2016/09/of-olfactory-incivility-rant.html, a very early objection to “foghorn scents” that turn “any journey in public transportation into an olfactory cacophony”, describing them as “olfactory selfie-sticks expanding the radius of me-me-me” that spring from “the same sense of entitlement as manspreading (aka ‘the crystal balls syndrome’) or vociferating one’s life on the phone in a public place.” Fortunately for some, we don’t all have the same olfactory sensitivity to these molecules. There are even people who are partially anosmic when it comes to them, or at least seem to have a higher-than-average tolerance threshold – which might well explain it.

Invisibility and confusion
How did a simple technical tool become such a deeply embedded phenomenon that no one even notices it anymore nor, especially, comments on it? Because while there is a broad selection of articles, programmes and videos on the subject of Autotune, almost no one seems to have tackled the aesthetic question of woody ambers. Especially since what we have are simply two ordinary, reassuring words side by side: woody (natural, vertical, solid) and amber (mysterious, precious, totally vague), and we don’t actually know, when we name them, if we really are talking about them (woody ambers) or about woody and ambery accords separately, which is a totally different thing. And causes a lot of confusion. They are hardly ever discussed, other than the occasional mention in a pyramid or press release as a guarantee of the fragrance’s unimpeachable staying power. Their history, aroma, aesthetic and real names (Timberol, Ambrocénide, Ambermax, Ambrostar, Amber Xtreme, etc.) simply never come up. Given the phenomenal success on Instagram of fragrances that contain them, we might have expected to see a hashtag popping up all over the place. And yet, #woodyamber notches up less than 400 publications and its use seems fairly random. The omnipresence of the compounds in sillages is inversely proportional to their almost total absence from perfume messaging. It’s almost as if their character is perceived as too abstract, too vague, not anchored deeply enough in reality to make it possible to refer to them. Because how can we talk about them? Can we show them? Describe them? Are they wood? Amber? Both? When did they start appearing in formulas? Via which distribution channels? Which brands? Which perfumers? Why have they met with such an enthusiastic response that they are now ubiquitous?
But, most of all, why does no one talk about them or manage to explain why they really are problematic in contemporary perfumery, across all channels, rather than simply a sign of the snobbery of a handful of Nez authors?

Oud and virility
It most probably all began round about the mid-2000s, as brands targeted the highly profitable market of Middle Eastern customers with their habit of buying vast amounts of perfumer and a marked taste for powerful fragrances, especially oud, a wood (agar) which, when infected with mould, secrets a resin with an intense, complex animal odour. But since it is very costly and a little too divisive to appeal equally to Western noses, woody ambers helped to recreate the woody, dark and invasive type of accord.
No doubt a symbol of virile, not to say macho, power and domination, since their sillage wipes out all other, more subtle olfactory expressions, the fragrances built on these compounds gradually came to embody a new signature on the Western market, perceived as innovative and modern, breaking away from the classic Western structures, thus making them highly appealing.
It is hardly surprising that they turned up as base notes in men’s fragrances, where they took up more and more space: it began in 2005 with Black XS by Paco Rabanne (a brand that has more or less turned them into its signature since then), followed by One Million, Invictus, Bleu, Sauvage, Décibel, and the list goes on. In view of these perfumes’ impressive sales figures, the trend spread like wildfire.

Ironically enough, at a time when the public is increasingly greedy for all that is natural, healthy and organic and brands hardly mention anything else, unapologetically claiming percentages that are more or less misleading, if not downright deceitful, to reassure us, the sillage of woody ambers can be perceived as the antithesis of nature. And it is not their 100% artificial origin that is problematic – as already discussed on this site – but the fact that they suggest a polluted urban atmosphere, a sort of olfactory transcription of exhaust pipes, petrol, airport tarmac, factory emissions, ashtrays and tar. In short, everything bad produced by our consumer society.

Smokescreen
There is also an educational issue: increasing numbers of perfumes contain an overdose of the compounds, and are even built on them, but without mentioning them, which sows confusion over the actual smell of ingredients. For example, a fragrance called Tonka Cardamom and smelling primarily of woody ambers could throw consumers off the scent by making them think the two ingredients produce that particular aroma when combined, which would be counterproductive in terms of olfactory education.
What they do is create a smokescreen: when you smell a strong woody amber sillage in the street (and you can smell them from far away because even when a perfume contains other notes, they are the ones that diffuse the most), it is very difficult to tell which product it is; all you can do is say “wow, that’s a strong woody amber!” without really identifying it. Brand messaging makes you believe that you stand out with your powerful sillage, whereas in reality you’re a drop in a vast ocean. The opposite of a “signature scent” which stands out from the others, embodying a real sense of personality and effectively associating a person with their perfume.

How far will it go, this invasion welcomed by many, invisible to some, and roundly rejected by a few? It is difficult to put a stop to a roaring success: when something sells well, aesthetic considerations don’t really come into the picture.
After breaching a whole section of niche perfumery, following then overtaking the oud trend, and taking up residence in all men’s and some women’s mainstream fragrances, the woody amber sillage seems to be spreading to brands that until now opted for a more distinctive olfactory line. For instance, this year we have been somewhat saddened to see the arrival of an Uncut Gem by Frédéric Malle here, a Zero from Comme des garçons there, along with Frustration from État libre d’Orange and Peau by Arquiste. Releases that, on top of endorsing and embedding the trend, send the message that perfumery is opportunistic, turning in circles, stagnating – when you only have to talk to perfumers to understand that they still have plenty of ideas to explore.

You could argue that woody ambers mark a breaking point with the classic aesthetics of perfumery, challenging the middle-class notion of good taste as has already happened in other artistic spheres – and accusations of snobbery would be totally understandable. However, the objection would have more weight if the compounds had not become a marketing artifice, a way of selling something for a lot of money that is often passed off for something it is not. But since all trends have their ups and downs, we can bet that, once it has reached its peak, this one will end up losing its appeal and begin to decline.

To conclude this attempt to formulate the reasons for our disenchantment, we have a few messages, firstly for users and consumers: consider taking into account other criteria besides sillage or tenacity; they are not the only factors that make for a good perfume – even though your bottle represents a major investment – and if you can no longer smell your sillage, remember that it’s mainly due to your brain getting used to it rather than a problem with the perfume itself. Stop asking other people “will it last?” and instead ask yourself “do I like it?” Think seriously about the evocation, the emotion, the subtleties of a composition: these are the things that will bring you pleasure in daily life and for years to come. 

And then we have a message for perfume brands: stop asking for copies of perfumes overloaded with successful woody ambers, step out in a new direction; perfumery doesn’t need 100 imitations of Baccarat rouge or Sauvage, even if it is no doubt a highly lucrative market. Propose creations that are intimate, rich, original, diversified, surprising, inspiring. Don’t try and keep up with the latest fashions because you will inevitably and quickly find yourself outdated.

And finally a message for perfumers: you don’t have the easiest of tasks, we know that you are often pulled between contradictory demands, “be creative, be successful” and so on and so forth. But don’t sacrifice your talent and your creativity on the altar of your employer’s or client’s profit-seeking by drowning your formulas in the easy option offered by woody ambers. Impose your distinctive style, your signature, your personality, reject the commonplace, say no to clichés, fight against undemanding, commercial trends, dare to be different, as that is how creations which last over time and leave their mark are born. It’s never too late to shake things up.

With thanks to Denyse Beaulieu, Sarah Bouasse, Cécile Clouet, Olivier R.P. David, Aurélie Dematons, Juliette Faliu, Anne-Sophie Hojlo, Clément Paradis, Patrice Revillard and Alexis Toublanc for all the discussions over the years that have fed into the thoughts and ideas expressed here.

Main visual: Anatole-Henri de Beaulieu, Le Duel, 1870, Museum of Fine Art of Bordeaux

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Notes

Notes
1  See the article Woody Ambers published in Nez, the Olfactory Magazine – #07 – The Animal Sense
2 https://graindemusc.blogspot.com/2016/09/of-olfactory-incivility-rant.html

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