Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Woody amber" vs. amber vs. amber that happens to be woody

I am not a chemist or a perfumer, so probably not the best person to write this post, but it doesn't seem to have been satisfactorily answered elsewhere on the Internet, so here goes: What's the difference between "woody amber," "amber" and an "amber" that happens to be "woody"?

"Woody amber" is a term used to describe a class of synthetic molecules with a sharp smell sometimes described as being reminiscent of rubbing alcohol. Woody ambers, like synthetic musks and other large aromachemicals, tend to be perceived differently by different noses. Some people are completely anosmic to them, others are highly sensitive. People who are sensitive to woody ambers usually describe them in auditory (high-pitched, screechy) or tactile (spiky, abrasive) terms. Molecules that fall into the "woody amber" category include Karanal and Ambrocenide. They are sometimes simply called synthetic ambers or synthetic ambergris. (Amber and ambergris are also different things; woody amber materials are usually considered to be a substitute for ambergris, not the amber accord described below.) Aside from having a smell of their own, woody ambers are often used as intensifiers to make other materials more diffusive and longer-lasting.

"Amber" is a much older term used to describe an accord (familiar blend of notes) rather than a single note or material, usually a combination of vanilla, resins and/or balsams.

The confusion, naturally, arises from the fact that "woody" is also an adjective that means what it sounds like: smelling like wood. And a perfume with a natural amber accord could also easily be woody (including cedar or sandalwood, for example), leading people to describe it as a "woody amber." But an amber with woody notes is not the same as a "woody amber note." Both valid descriptions, but they mean different things.

Perfume is stupid sometimes.

Interestingly, I don't see this term used often by women perfume bloggers, but it's used all the time in the Basenotes community, perhaps because woody amber materials are more commonly used in men's fragrances. Here's what one Basenotes writer had to say about them:

Honestly, I don’t like Chrome. But it’s a perfect, easily available example of a textbook “woody amber” scent, so I think I need to put it on here for historical significance and as a useful reference. 
If you think about it, even esoteric groundbreakers like A*Men and Le Male are grounded in traditional perfumery, using age-old notes like patchouli and lavender in interesting new ways. Even Green Irish Tweed, with its game-changing hyper-synthetic Allyl Amyl Glycolate/Dihydromyrcenol/Ambrox aquatic mix, was grounded with traditional chypre ingredients. 
What Chrome did was to take Creed’s legendary aquatic chemical mix and take it to its extreme. By topping this mix with a lavender overdose and a bunch of other synthetics, they created a distinct smell, the polar opposite of traditional perfumes. Aside from some lemon in the topnotes, Chrome doesn’t smell like anything classic. Instead, it’s more of a chemical buzz than an identifiable smell. Some compare this smell to ammonia or lemon-scented Windex. To others, it’s the smell of an over-heated swimming pool, its chlorine fumes hanging heavy in the humid air. It’s also known for smelling like super-saturated rubbing alcohol or the smell of hot metal or flint. Many people don’t even think of this mix as an intentional accord, thinking of it simply as “that men’s cologne smell” or “that smell that makes me sneeze”. However you perceive it, this is what’s known as “woody amber.” This, of course, is a terribly misleading term, because it doesn’t smell like wood or amber. It’s also generally not included in note lists (though some scents lately have called it amberwood, which I think is a name they’re trying to call this mixture now), so it’s very rarely discussed, leaving it as a weird elephant in the room of men’s scents. 
More than any other mix of notes, this “woody amber” mix has come to define modern mass-market men’s perfumery. Sometimes, it’s an artful metallic buzz (like in Terre d’Hermes), while other times it’s combined with pepper and sweet citrus or fruit to give a masculine hum to otherwise too-sweet topnotes. But, most commonly, it’s a familiar base to hundreds of unremarkable modern men’s scents. 
So, in the interest of informed discussion, I urge everyone to go out and spray some Chrome and really get to know its weird smell so you’ll fully know “woody amber.”


  1. Follow-up post request: ambergrease vs. amber vs. amber that happens to be greasy.

  2. You were the right person to write this, you made it interesting. God. I need to visit Basenotes when I have a spare hour or 20. And this touches on something I've always been curious about- the fact that people could perceive the scent of a perfume differently. Fascinating.

  3. Basenotes is a fun place to get lost. Pick one of the guys who has written like hundreds of reviews and read all of them.

    And yes, it seems that synthetic (manmade) chemicals are the ones that are most prone to being experienced differently. Most natural materials are made of a whole bunch of different types of molecules, so it's sort of like one of those images that are made of a bunch of tiny images and you can only see what it's supposed to be from far away. (You know, like a portrait of Obama made out of pictures of Obama?) The overall smell is approximate and if you remove or add something small, it's still *basically* the same smell...

  4. It's funny - I may be anosmic to at least one woody-amber (I like to hyphenate it. because I am addicted to extraneous punctuation, that is why). P:TG mentions there being a huuuuge one in AG Matin d'Orage, and I don't get it at all. On the other hand, Une Rose made me feel absolutely hunted, and I think that's the woody-amber material chasing me around with a giant machete.

  5. Yes, I think there must be a number of them in circulation -- there is one kind that I smell in both Coromandel and Musc Ravageur and it's overwhelming, but almost no one else ever mentions it. On the other hand, a lot of people complain about Iso E Super (as in the Ormonde Jayne scents) and that doesn't seem to bother me at all. I do think Jean Claude Ellena is partial to woody(-)ambers, because his (later) perfumes seem to aggravate me more and more every time I wear them.

    I have only smelled Une Rose on paper, on which is just a beautiful natural rose. Someday I need to try it on skin and see if it attacks me!

  6. ha! thanks for the great article. I'm writing about Une Rose, it bites my nose but I think it works in the composition. I'm pretty sure I'm very sensitive to these notes, on Matin d'Orage and in JCE hands they feel more natural, though. on Black XS L'Exces I just want to run!