Amber Essential Oil

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Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient trees, which has been collected by humans and used as a decorative and ornamental object since ancient times owing to its attractive visual appeal. Amber is formed slowly when the tree resin is subjected to the sustained heat and pressure of overlying sedimentary layers. The formation goes through stages; and the first is the formation of copal – which is also used in incense and perfume creation. [1]

The origins and composition of amber were evidently a subject of hot debate over the centuries – and even in the 18th century it was not ascertained how it was created, nor whether it was of vegetable or mineral origin.

Amber’s is a heterogeneous mixture of polymerized resins and its chemical composition varies depending on the type of tree from which it is formed, its age and other factors such as the geological forces it has been subjected to. It is ultimately comprised of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in varying molecular forms. Amber is classified into five different classes – each of which has a different chemical makeup. As a solid, it has no smell, but when powdered or crushed it gives off its agreeable aroma. When burned it has a characteristic pinewood fragrance – which may enable genuine amber to be distinguished from fake. [1]

It’s important to realise that the term “amber” when used in the perfume industry, has drifted away in meaning somewhat from denoting the scent of pure amber and may include blends of fragrances from other sources, branded as amber.

In modern times, many perfumes and other scented products are given the name “amber” – however it is not in any way guaranteed that such products are made using actual amber; in fact it is more likely that they are not. The name “amber” as applied to perfume has become an generic term used loosely to describe and brand certain perfumes and scents that do not necessarily have a fixed recipe, but are characteristically warm and earthy.

In modern times amber perfumes may have been created using combinations of any of copal, vanilla, Labdanum, benzoin resin and Dammara resin, as well as synthetic materials.

Oil of Amber

If it is heated, Amber will soften. Further heating will cause it to burn. If it is heated above 200 degrees C, it will break down to give an “oil of amber” and a black residue. [1]

Oil of amber has been known about for centuries. Known as Oleum Succini, it was described in Pharmacopoeia of the 19th century and described as a possible stimulant, used in previous times in medicine but no longer. The 1857 “Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics” gives a detailed description of the preparation of oil of amber and some of its qualities:

The following mode of preparing this oil I have seen practised by an experienced manufacturer:—The amber is distilled in a large iron still or retort, set in brickwork over a proper fire, and connected with an earthen globe, which opens into an old oil jar for a receiver. Three distilled products are obtained: impure succinic acid, called volatile salt of amber; an aqueous liquor, termed volatile spirit of amber, consisting of water, acetic and succinic acid, and pyrogenous oil; and volatile oil of amber. The residue in the retort is a kind of pitch, and is called English asphalt. The oil is afterwards rectified by distillation in an iron pot, to which an earthen head is adapted. A very gentle heat suffices for redistillation. Scrapings of Copal and the resin Dammara are frequently substituted for amber. They yield no succinic acid, but a volatile oil scarcely distinguishable from genuine oil of amber.

Volatile oil of amber, when fresh drawn, has a pale yellowish colour, which deepens by age, and a strong and remarkable, but agreeable, odour. It is a powerful local irritant. When rubbed on the skin it acts as a rubefacient, and is sometimes employed in liniments in rheumatism and paralysis. Taken internally it operates, like most other empyreumatic oils, on the nervous system, and is used as a stimulant, antispasmodic, and emmenagogue, in hysteria and amenorrhoea. The dose is from ten to fifteen drops. It is a constituent of the Tinctura Ammoniae composita, which is made in imitation of Eau de Luce, the history of which has been fully detailed by Beckmann.

Artificial Musk (Moschus artificialis; Moschus factitius) is prepared by adding gradually f3iiiss. [sic] of concentrated nitric acid to f3j. of oil of amber, in a large glass tumbler. When the acid is not of sufficient strength, its action must be assisted by heat. The oil is gradually resinified at the expense of the oxygen of the acid, nitrous fumes being evolved. An orange yellow resin, having a peculiar musky odour, is obtained ; which is to be well washed with water to remove all traces of acid. Artificial musk is reputed to be antispasmodic and nervine, and has been employed in hooping-cough, and low nervous fevers. A tincture of it {Tinctura Moschi artificialis) is prepared by dissolving 3j- of artificial musk in f3x. of rectified spirit. The dose is f3j. [2]

Amber – History

Oil of amber is widely described in the chemists’ manuals of the 18th century and a quick search of Google Books will validate this.
One of the earliest mentions of it I can find, however, is interesting – in Randle Cotgrave’s 1673 A French and English Dictionary, which states:

Huile sacree. Oil of Amber; called so of its admirable, and secret virtues.”

What’s strange about this is that sacree means “sacred”, not “secret”. A direct translation of huile sacree yields “chrism” – which is a Greek word meaning “anointing”. Whether this is a reference to the use of oil of amber in ritual or religious rites, or whether it is a subtle reference to its use as an aphrodisiac / perfume.

Madeleine de Scudery’s 1663 “Almahide, ou l’esclave reine” (“Almahide, or The Captured Queen”) also mentions scent prepared from Amber. [5]

The scent of Amber has long been considered to be aphrodisiac. Amber’s reputation as an aphrodisiac is certainly old, but appears not to have been universally acknowledged: The New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences of 1881 states that “In olden times it was considered an aphrodisiac. [6] However, most 19th century sources list oil of amber as being stimulant and antispasmodic but not as aphrodisiac.

Historically, there was some confusion between Amber and Ambergris. In French, the name for Ambergris is Ambre Gris – and it was at one time thought that ambergris was a type of amber, which it is not; Ambergris is a product of whales whereas amber is of vegetable origin.
Both were found washed ashore, both were alluring perfume ingredients, and both were of mysterious origin, so it is quite understandable that it was once thought that they were two types of the same material. Ambergris too has long been considered an aphrodisiac.

Oil Of Amber – Summary

If a substance has been in use in perfumery for hundreds or thousands of years, it is because it arguably has some quality which allures or stimulates desire and delight. That is the whole point of perfume, ultimately. Therefore, it could easily be claimed that the scent of amber must surely have some aphrodisiac quality – otherwise it would not be employed in such a manner. However, you would have a hard time finding scientific research to support any such claims.

It is considered likely that certain recipes of scent, especially when applied to the skin, either mimic the action of pheromones or deceive our sense of smell – triggering and enhancing the attraction response, which is known to be partly based on smell. Amber invariably finds itself on lists of aphrodisiac scents – but detractors from claims that the amber scent may have aphrodisiac qualities may argue that the appeal is in the sense of the exotic: Given that the true origins of amber were not ascertained until recent times, and that amber has unusual electrostatic properties, it might instead be argued that in historic times amber was viewed as highly mysterious; and that its aphrodisiac quality was therefore simply added on as a result of its mystique.

Others may say that the aphrodisiac quality of a scent lies in its triggering of our memory of a wonderful romantic episode, or in clever marketing of fragrances which are merely “appealing” but lack actual physical aphrodisiac action. However, anyone who has been truly enthralled by the scent of a powerfully alluring fragrance, and its ability to hypnotize, may be bound to disagree; perhaps not even to care.

Amber is widely available as a decorative object – however, many perfumes and incenses labeled as “amber” are not necessarily made from amber at all. They may include a blend of other herbs / plant essences and/or synthetic ingredients. One of the most popular of these ingredients is copal – itself a fragrant resin derived from trees.


[2] The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics” – Jonathan Pereira (1857)
[5] “Almahide, ou l’esclave reine” – Madeleine de Scudery (1663), p.512

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