Raw Materials Ambrette: Suave Vegetal Musk

Ambrette: Suave Vegetal Musk

10/30/15 19:55:36 (9 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

I have to confess it to you: I'm a sucker for musk notes.
And the more human-like they are, the better they register to my brain as familiar and desirable...which is a conundrum given the controversy, the contempt, the pathos and bathos of musk notes in perfumes. There are two distinct groups within the population segment that does know a bit about musk: the detesters who are up in arms also because of the former cruel practices of extracting the genuine article from the deer musk; and the detesters who abhor the fabric laundry musks, such as Galaxolide, used in bucketloads in many modern fragrances (and even in modern classics from more than 20 years ago, such as Lancome Tresor for instance or even niche "bombs" such as Jubilation XXV!) 
Seems like one can't win in my situation. The trouble is I assuredly fall headlong first for musky notes, be it "cleaner" or "dirtier". I count myself among the few who consider the infamous Muscs Kublai Khan by Serge Lutens a purring kitten (though I have to admit that it is probably the heavy use of civet that causes the legendary "barbarian's unwashed crotch" challenge for most perfume lovers in that one...). What's a girl to do in a hostile environment of musk detractors right and left? 
Until the late 19th century, natural Tonkin musk from the musk deer was extensively used in perfumery. It knew its heyday in the 17th and early 18th century when it was used as a strong odorous call of arms to the putrid atmosphere European cities where human proximity, excrement and debris was prolific. Fight fire with fire they say and musk fought the funkiness of...musky effluvia. But the improvement in sanitation threw musk off favor and all the up and coming personalities in the newly emerging "new empires" started to favor lighter scents. 
The provenance of natural musk became controversial in the 20th century and the development of musk synthetics solved some of that problems, right until the ban of nitromusks in the late 1970s. 
Ambrette seeds
Luckily for us, there are some plants sharing olfactory properties with musk, namely the macrocyclic lactone compounds which make the more "human" like musks what they are. These include angelica (Angelica archangelica), the musk blossom (Mimulus moschatus) and Ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus) and they are indeed some of my most favorite plant products in all of perfumery.
Ambrette is thus called because its seeds produce a beguiling odor between amber and musk with a very unique character. Lightly cool and slightly metallic sometimes, thanks to its richness in farnesol, a note close to lily of the valley, but also subtly animalic. In its diluted form it takes fruity pear and "eau de vin" from prune facets, as well as iris facets which account for its at once metallic and starchy properties. If like you are a fan of the French liqueur Bénédictine then you have surely met its intriguing addition in the spirit's "bouquet". 
It's important here to note and differentiate between ambrette seed of a natural plant source and the well known (and now prohibited to use due to concerns of neurotoxicity) Musk Ambrette; a diffusive and tenacious synthetic nitromusk which smells deeply warm-musky and was used in several classics in previous decades such as Chanel No.5)
Its characteristic use in perfumery can be best experienced by the amateur lover in Chanel No.18 if one can't get hold of the raw stuff. Goutal's Musc Nomade approximates the scent of musk through the combined use of musk mallow and angelica; it is among my most favorite musk fragrance thanks to its human touch but also its classy subtlety. It is a vegetal musk that borders on the plant kingdom; superb in its delicate balance. I call it the Fanny Ardant of musks; beguiling and enigmatic; handsome and sexy in a non manufactured way. Another similar take worth exploring is Musc Botanique by Strange Invisible Perfumes.
You can also smell ambrette (yes!) in the stinky Muscs Kublai Khan, but also in the much much cleaner Clair de Musc. The fluffier attributes can be felt in L'Artisan Parfumeur Bois Farine but also in unlikely sources such as Champs Elysées by Guerlain
The small seeds resembling kidneys come inside a crust which exudes a yellow resin lending the seeds their peculiar odor. 
Cultivation happens in the equator area; specifically India and Indonesia. According to Guerlain art director Sylvaine Delacourte around 60 tons of each are harvested annually with the manual harvest taking place in early summer.This renders ambrette a precious raw material that is used in perfumery less than one would have thought of considering its superb olfactory replication of the macrocyclic lactones of natural musk. 
The distillation of the seeds gives an ambrette essential oil that is pasty in consistency and needs further work to render an "absolute of ambrette". You might therefore sometimes come across the term "butter" of ambrette for the first stage oil (analogous to "orris butter") though technically it is incorrect.
Further manipulation with solvents extracts the remaining solid organic acids that separate to leave behind the absolute. Another method uses supercritical CO2 extraction that gives a better and purer yield. 
Ambrette seeds were used for their relaxing yet also stimulating properties; Ayurverdic medicine values them as an aphrodisiac while the essential oil and the infusion are valued as a skin soother for various afflications causing itching. 
The seeds of the musk mallow are sometimes added in coffee. The latter is of course famous of also being the carrier of another animal-smelling essence; that of civet...
If you haven't been converted to the many graces of ambrette grab a pen and note down to try the following list of perfumes with ambrette seed musk in them. You might just have stumbled upon your next favorite "note" like I did many many moons ago. 
Pic credits: Fragrantica; seeds via www.payanbertrand.com; Annick Goutal & Chanel via gala.fr

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.


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I didn't realise Elena is a musk sucker!
Elena, you must try Azzaro Couture, it has huge amount of ambrette with unusual twist.
Great angelica's note is in Balmya Balmain.
I think I rather hate perfumes with animalic musks and fruit combinations, but recently quite liked White Musk of Montale for it is soft and tender... Need to explore more combinations of white musk plus flowers!


The synthetic musk ambrettolide doesn't really smell like ambrette seed. Ambrettolide smells strongly like laundry products, however, in dilution it smells a bit like red fruit, oily and a bit musky. It blends well with many materials natural and synthetic augmenting and enhancing their character. It's great contribution to perfumery is in performance gains of longevity and sillage. It is very widely used in modern perfumery.

Ambrette seed is a beautiful musk not only in its scent but also in performance. Its downfall is it extremely expensive and easily replaced by vastly less expensive synthetics as far as performance. Ambrette seed will only be used by niche and natural perfumers and any mention of it in a broadly commercial fragrance will be tiny traces only.

Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Thank you for the kind feedback everyone. Glad this resonates with you. :-)


I wouldn't say it's too widespread (it would require some conscious decision to reach for it) but it's not highly uncommon either. Ain't that a good thing!


a very interesting question indeed thank you!

Ambrette is rich in ambrettolide among other constituents and we have come to recognize this as a "musk" note thanks to its inclusion in "musk" blends (especially as related to white musk fragrances because of floral sweetness facet).
Ambrette's nutty quality is of course what makes it pair well with woodier scents but it also has clean facets (ambrette has farnesol and farnesyl acetate constituents) so it's not easy to differentiate between the material and the constituent unless smelled in isolation.

But there's also synthesized ambrettolide i.e. a macrocyclic lactone prepared through oxidation which goes back decades in patents -with updates as the years pass...
Here it is: google.com/patents/US3681395

lisa o
lisa o

Thank you for this article! I'm hopelessly addicted to ambrette seed, too...and get uncomfortable as soon as my stock of the essential oil in my fridge is running low...:)

Arbre Amer
Arbre Amer

I wonder if ambrettolide, a synthetic musk used in perfumery, is indeed the same essence as the principle ingredient os ambrette (as rumored), or is it a non related substance?

Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

Really enjoyed this informative article Elena, I love musk too in any form!


Gorgeous, Elena! Thank you!

I knew it featured prominently in many natural perfumes but didn't realize it was in so many commercial scents, too.

My fave example: Providence Perfume Co. Hindu Honeysuckle.


Absolutely interestings, like all your stories about the history of parfums and their notes. I read every day your blog, absolutely amazing.
Very thaks for your work!!!


Such a great article, i have searching to do now!


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