Back to the blog

Ambre Cello, a bewitching tale

In the world of perfume, there are two types of amber, ambergris - a priceless marine treasure - and amber accord.

Ambergris. Origin and history of a cult raw material.

For thousands of years, ambergris has been an object of fascination for men. Firstly, for the many properties and uses it has been given, but also for the mystery of its long-ignored origin.

Ambergris is a sperm whale's digestive waste. It is a concretion that forms in the animal's second intestine during the digestion of giant squid. It is then discharged through natural channels into the ocean where it matures, taking on the iodine side of the sea.As it is, it has a very repulsive smell but is also invaluable. On the market it is said to sell for around €40,000/kg. Indian fishermen found a 28.4kg block, which was valued at 3.4 million euros.

So, if you're on holiday and a beach is deserted because of the smell, you'd better go and have a look at it to see what's lurking there.

For a while, sperm whales were unfortunately hunted for this concretion in their intestines. But apart from being terribly cruel, this practice was useless 'olfactory' as ambergris needs to be solid and spend time in the ocean to take on the smell of the sea.

Ambergris is the oldest from a historical point of view. It is known that the Chinese knew about ambergris 2000 years before Christ. It was considered an imperial item at the time, and they believed that it came from dragons sleeping on rocks at sea and drooling in the ocean.

The Chinese and Arabs used it in medicine and as an aphrodisiac. In ancient Egypt it was used as incense and in perfume oils. In Europe we find it in the Middle Ages, ambergris is then extremely expensive. In the 18th century, Marie-Antoinette's hot chocolate was prepared with cocoa, vanilla, ambergris and water.

This raw material is still widely used in traditional Asian medicine, especially to treat respiratory problems. In India it is used in Ayurvedic medicine against epilepsy or nervous system dysfunctions.It is also used as a powerful aphrodisiac by many cultures.

The amber accord. Star of the perfumer's olfactory palette.

The history of the amber accord begins with the De Laire bases, which were created to introduce a synthetic raw material to perfumers. The synthetic molecule was coated with natural raw materials and allowed to show what effects this new molecule could bring in a perfume. Amber 83 was the first base created for the first molecule to be synthesised, vanillin. It dates back to the 1900s. Without this base, vanillin might never have been sold, but it has now become a staple in perfumery.

Extraction methods & composition

To extract the perfume from ambergris, the infusion technique is used. The material is left to infuse in a boiling liquid such as oil or alcohol before being allowed to cool. Ambergris then has a very rich odour with several facets which will have a different intensity depending on several factors such as the time of floating in the sea for example. There are woody, tobacco, animal, musky and marine scents. But we are mainly on warm notes.  Perfumers used to use it because it brought a particular harmony to the perfume but also because it has fixative properties that allow the perfume to last a long time. Today, we no longer use animal matter, we only reproduce the smell synthetically.

Amber 83 is a vanillin-based accord enveloped in patchouli, tonka bean, frankincense and myrrh as well as luminous bergamot notes. It has been used extensively to make perfumes that were then called 'oriental' and now 'amber'.  From this base came the amber accord, which has a citrus (often bergamot) or spice pattern in the top notes contrasted with vanilla and balsam notes in the base notes such as vanilla, vanillin or benzoin, but also almond notes such as tonka bean or coumarin, and finally resinous materials such as frankincense and myrrh. 

This amber facet has been used in some of the most emblematic perfumes of the great houses, such as Ambre Eternel from the Les Absolus d'Orient range by Guerlain or Libre by Yves Saint Laurent. Other examples include Ambre Gris by Balmain - a women's fragrance that combines amber with cinnamon, tuberose, benzoin, cedarwood and white musk - or Ambre Nuit by Christian Dior - a masculine oriental floral fragrance that combines amber with Turkish rose, patchouli, cedar, and bergamot. Other examples include Rive d'Ambre by Tom Ford and Ambre Narguilé by Hermès, which use amber to create complex, rich fragrances.

Ambre Cello, an enchanting perfumed and musical composition

The great perfumer Pierre-Constantin Gueros has taken up the emblematic materials of the amber accord to transport us to the perfume souk of Deira, the original birthplace of Dubai. At the top, bergamot brings light, brightness and freshness to the composition. Then the warm contrast is revealed with tonka bean and its warm almond note. Vanilla and benzoin bring sweetness and a liqueur-like quality to the fragrance. Together they make the fragrance addictive and are enhanced by opulent myrrh.

This fragrance is the inspiration for the musical composition by Javier Martinez Campos, a student of Gautier Capuçon in the Cello Class of Excellence at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. A captivating cello solo performed by the great Gautier Capuçon* himself. This melody takes us on a magical oriental journey to the heart of the desert and ancient Deira. A monumental work, a true poly-sensitive epic conceived and performed by two of today's great virtuosos. The recording was made in Madrid at the sublime Studio A in 2021.

Discover the history of this composition in the video below.

*Gautier Capuçon appears with the kind permission of Erato/Warner Classics

Written by Lola Moynot