I was poking through my collection the other day and found it. Not sure if I'd ever even taken a whiff, but not particularly excited because the same brand's Musk had disappointed me, I took the tiny wand out of the vial and applied it to my skin.
There was a sharp, almost medicinal and hesperidic (or aromatic citrus) note (bergamot? vetiver? clary sage?). Then a hauntingly sweet, warm, and compelling scent that crept up in its wake, leaving a slick of oil on my skin. Thick droplets splattered my computer screen when I snapped the perfume vial shut.
Ambergris is the substance that starts out as the secretion in a whale's stomach to protect it from the undigestible and sharp beaks of cuttle fish. It moves on as a floating mass of what is essentially whale vomit, and then, following months or years of photoderadation and oxidation in the ocean, hardens, darkens, forms a crusty wax on its outside, and washes ashore. Perfumers prize it for its "peculiar odor that is at once sweet, earthy, marine and animalic." Another set of adjectives sings its praises like this: it has a "wet, earthy, musty, seawater-seaweed, tobacco, sandalwood, animal musk and fecal odor." According to one writer, pure ambergris smells like an "oddly sweet odor that is sometimes present during the process of mammalian decomposition."
Ambergris is an ancient perfume ingredient. Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense and some modern Egyptians scent their cigarettes with Ambergris. Unlike civet, castoreum and musk which have been banned outright as ingredients in modern perfumery, ambergris has been largely replaced by synthetics because it is prohibitively expensive to use in perfume. It was banned in the '70s, but in 2001, a 1972 ruling (the Marine Mammal Protection Act) that forbade importing, buying or selling ambergris (including what washed ashore) was overturned since it wasn't deemed a byproduct of whaling industry but rather a substance whales expels naturally.
But in the Houbigant formula, the haunting, oily, uncanny scent is preceded by an almost distracting, sharp and peppery note. Because I was expecting something banal, it was a total shock to have this instantaneous attraction.
This organic sweetness in Ambergris accounted for my attention and interest even though the first notes should have been followed by a pretty awful, dimestore cheap cologne. Being seduced by Ambergris would be like falling in love with a beautiful man in spite of his tacky polyester suit, porn stache and gold chains. After sitting with it a while, you don't even notice the first weird notes and even begin to make a virtue out of them. Spicy. Bracing. Medicinal (some smell camphor/mothballs). Bright.
I'm intrigued by the Alyssa Ashley line. In the late '60s, Alyssa Ashley was introduced to the Houbigant Parquet division of perfumes. According to the website, it was the hippie era that influenced perfume's nostalgic look back to the animal notes of Civet, Musk and Ambergris, which were actually the names of the Alyssa Ashley perfumes themselves:
"At the end of the '60s. . .music changed, habits changed, fashion changed. The young generation, starting from the USA and England, embraced oriental philosophies looking for a simpler more natural lifestyle. This new style of living also reflected itself in perfume. Young people no longer wanted the sophisticated fragrances worn by their parents, but embraced the simple ones whose roots lay in oriental culture. The hippies and the flower children bough the fashionable essential oils and in 1969 Alyssa Ashley launched their first product, Musk Oil."
---Of course, looking online, the first thing I learned about Houbigant's Ambergris is that it's no longer being produced. Women were frantically searching for the stuff. Is there any word that can strike terror into the heart of a perfume lover more than the word, "Discontinued"?
"I am in dire need for this oil," writes Flo. "In the little round black bottle. I used to purchase it from Rich's in 1975. Please help."
"I was given the Ambergris Oil by Alyssa Ashley/Houbigant as a birthday gift many years ago and used it sparingly. I was so upset when I finally ran out.I was very sorry to hear that it is no longer available. I carry the empty bottle in my purse always..."
"Oh, gosh, I loved this oil so much. My grandmother and I wore it and I loved hugging her and smelling it. She died over 15 years ago..."
And finally, this pathetic plea: "Please has anyone an old bottle of Ambergris by Houbigant for me? Desperate. Jill."
---As of this writing, The Perfumed Court once again has a tiny bit of this ambrosial Ambergris available. Get it before it disappears forever.