One of the biggest perfume synthetic raw materials is Ambrox. I mean big in both senses of the word. Ambrox is widely used as one of the most common basenotes. Ambrox is also a big molecule as you can see below. It is the size which allows it to linger on the skin for hours and hours. Like many of the synthetic molecules in this series Ambrox came about as a synthetic equivalent to an expensive natural ingredient.
The natural ingredient I am talking about is ambergris. Ambergris has become so prized that it has been called “floating gold”. The price of ambergris has done nothing but go up so synthetic chemistry comes to the rescue again. Natural ambergris was analyzed and Ambrox was determined to be one of the major components. The synthesis was accomplished via a process called semi-synthesis. It is where you take an easily isolated natural product as an advanced starting material and then over a few steps you transform it into the desired product.
For Ambrox the starting material is an isolate from clary sage called Sclareol. It takes six steps to convert Sclareol to Ambrox and it is still pretty labor intensive. As a result ambrox is not one of the cheaper synthetics you can employ, although it is significantly more economical than ambergris. There is a more efficient synthesis starting from a natural product isolated in labdanum but even though it is two steps shorter the chemical reagents necessary to carry out the transformation are more expensive and that makes the shorter more chemically efficient synthesis less economically efficient.
Ambrox made its first widespread impact as a component of the base of Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. Ambrox would go onto star in Geza Schoen’s Escentric Molecule 02 just as a single dilution of pure Ambrox. If you try that perfume you will see that Ambrox carries some of the briny musky quality of ambergris but it also has significant characteristics of light woodiness. It is that latter quality that really has been used by perfumers to really bring Ambrox to the foreground. Two of my favorite uses come from two different Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle perfumes by perfumer Dominique Ropion; Geranium pour Monsieur and Portrait of a Lady. In Geranium pour Monsieur it provides the austere muskiness at the base. In Portrait of a Lady the woody aspect is more pronounced. Just those two perfumes by one master perfumer show how much versatility this aromachemical has. I also think there is a downside to Ambrox when it is used poorly it often has an overbearing unbalancing effect on a perfume. There have been perfumes I have liked until the Ambrox explodes upon the scene obliterating any nuance. It makes me wary when I see it on the ingredient list because if it is not used well it can single-handedly ruin a perfume for me.
The bottom line is Ambrox is here to stay and over time perfumers have learned how to use it in multiple creative ways. When it is used well it can be chemical gold in a perfume.