Sunday 6 May 2012

Forever Ambre

Perfume news: Ambre is back! A few years ago the Provence beauty product company L’Occitane discontinued their Ambre scent, to universal dismay. Well, maybe not universal, but dismay was certainly widespread. I made a point of asking about it in every L’Occitane shop I entered – in France and England, just to add my voice – and the response was always the same: I wasn’t the only customer asking for its return.

We missed this rich, beguiling amber fragrance with its wonderful sweet warmth and lingering caramel comfort. What had once been an everyday spritz, especially in winter, was now being guarded and used like a rare essence on special days.

It’s a scent that begins with top notes of bergamot and white flowers then quickly brings in the sweet tobacco of tonka bean and labdanum. The labdanum is the key – no, not laudanum, the opiate of past poets – labdanum is the sticky brown resin derived from the cistus shrub Cistus ladanifer, a type of rock rose. Even growing in the garden, this plant releases a wonderful scent, sweet yet citrus, and instantly reminiscent of warm Mediterranean evenings.

After about an hour on the skin, the base notes of amber, vanilla and cedarwood come into play. From there on in, it’s all musky wood and honeyed earthiness with more than a hint of maple syrup.  This is a scent that lasts but manages never to cloy. It develops into slightly oriental spice and caramel.

Centuries ago, amber perfume was produced from ambergris, the origins of which were very much less appealing. Ambergris was a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and excreted. As it aged it developed a distinctive heavy sweet scent. It was also, for obvious reasons, extremely rare and expensive.

But in Provence, where the cistus grows wild, are ideal conditions to produce a labdanum substitute for ambergris. It could be made by boiling the leaves and twigs, or as an essential oil extracted by steam distillation.

My novel The Lantern and the novella The Lavender Field have their roots in the use of local plants in the perfume industry in Provence and I have L’Occitane to thank not only for returning Ambre to its shelves but for a small but vital detail that provided inspiration.

The idea of a blind perfumer, Marthe Lincel, came from the realization that there were strips of Braille on the packaging used by beauty product brand L’Occitane en Provence, based at Manosque. In 1997 the company created the foundation Provence dans tous les Sens (All the Senses of Provence) to introduce visually-impaired children to the world of perfume creation. In the novel, Marthe finds her true talent as a perfume “nose” after a visit to the Distillerie Musset from the school for the blind she attends in Manosque, although this episode takes place in the 1930s.

For most of the 20th century in this region, there was a gradual erosion of traditional farming as young people moved to the towns to seek work in the new industries and factories. The Luberon valley is celebrated for its fruit production – from cherries, apricots, peaches and melons, to apples and pears – and the local specialty is candied fruits, produced on an industrial scale.

The fight to survive was intense for those left behind on the hill farms in a region that was poor until the advent of mass tourism. In The Lantern, Pierre - the only brother - takes off for better-paid work, Bénédicte struggles on at the farmstead Les Genévriers while Marthe finds increasing success in Paris.

But how did Marthe really make the leap from a small distillery making scent and soap in the back hills of Provence to Paris? What did her signature perfume Lavande de Nuit mean to her? This is the story told in The Lavender Field…and which will provide a surprising link to the next full-length novel in progress.


Mem said...

I'm so happy to hear that Amber is back! I love it.

litlove said...

Another Amber fan here! I'm so relieved this is back in stock and I can start using up my old bottle with less restraint! It is such a beautiful scent - and you write about scents so very beautifully, Deborah!

Lisa Erin said...

Nice to see that some scents return. Years ago (mid-1980's) there was a perfume I wore and loved. Everywhere I went people would compliment me on it. Unfortunately, it was very short lived, as were all of the 'business ventures' a certain celebrity tried her hand at. As I am sure you know, scents can change from wearer to wearer due to body chemistry, etc. People would look surprised when I would tell them I was wearing "Uninhibited" by Cher. For whatever reason(s), that perfume 'agreed' with me (I received my first bottle as a gift). I have moved on to other scents, but I have always wished "Uninhibited" would surface again. I will have to look up Ambre.

Muriel said...

Beware..Amber is back then..I can't wait to read you new book !

Elizabeth Young said...

Sounds absolutely wonderful! I look forward to all things Deborah!

Libby said...

How did you KNOW that when I saw labdanum I would think laudanum LOL! I was thinking...well, THIS is interesting! Good mind-reading :)

josina said...

love this amber thank you for ttelling us its back! how doyou compare it with the amber from l'artisan parfumeur?

Fi said...

Great post. I love warm scents like the one you talk about above.

By the way, I've awarded you the Beautiful Blog award. You're mentioned as a nominee on my blog.

aguja said...

This perfume sounds wonderful - beguiling even.
This post is incredibly informative and interesting. I love it when someone has researched something and then passes on the knowledge to others. Thank you!
Is 'The Lavender Field' a link between 'The Lantern' and your new novel??
I am busy re reading 'The Lantern'.

Vanessa said...

Looking forward to 'The Lavender Field'. I love l'Occitane products but didn't know the Amber scent. Must try it.

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