Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ambrette Seed

Musk. The ultimate attractant?

And you can see why! Isn't muscone a gorgeous macrocyclic molecule?
Musk is a must-have ingredient for a natural perfume designed for seduction. We are always looking for aphrodisiac qualities in our food, drink, odors and environment... yes? We think of muskiness as sexiness. It's attractive, sweet, sultry and many other things for both men and women -- even fresh and clean.

My current project is an ambitious effort to develop a perfume for women who are confident, inspired, and romantic. My friend wants a custom fragrance for herself and her clients, one that will work with their own chemistry to enhance their feminine natural scents and entice their object(s) of desire. It should be transformative -- "for a better version of you." These are vivacious women who are close to and comfortable with their bodies and who prefer natural everything over synthetic anything.

It shouldn't be a sweet floral, though - no rose or old lady flowers. Not soft or powdery. Citrus, but no household cleaners. It should open with bergamot and feature honey, tea, and tobacco notes -- and suggest much more! It should, of course, include musk. This perfume will be simply irresistible, just like sex and candy...

How musk molecules work

Musk is a key ingredient in both natural and commercial perfumes and perfumed products because it holds ephemeral essences, which may last only a few minutes, much longer than they would last by themselves. It's a perfume fixative, allowing the wearer to enjoy rare and precious essences for hours rather than moments. Because of this property, the use of musk or other fixatives is a key principle in all perfume making. It's especially important in natural perfumery because of the sublime nature of organic essences. They are as fragile and brief as the plants from which they are derived.

You can almost imagine the large molecule above as a big basket with space for dainty little flowers, herbs, fruit, and other delightful molecules. Holding them, so they won't diffuse away too quickly.

Synthetic fragrances and synthetic musk ingredients are used extensively in every day products. Macrocyclic musk molecules can only be perceived by 50% of humans, yet synthetic musk is used in most perfumed products and in many commercial perfumes. It's definitely in your typical laundry detergent and fabric softener, because it prevents that "fresh, clean scent" from washing and drying away.

Based on my experience, the scent of a pure synthetic musk molecule (white musk, musk ketone) is very soft. Musk ketone does not smell "musky" though. The pure synthetic lacks any character at all, so I found no use for it. Perhaps one day it will find its way into one of my blends, one that cannot afford even a hint of animal notes but requires a bland, strong fixative. 


Musk in nature

All subspecies of the musk deer are endangered because of how greatly desired true musk is, as it has always been desired by humans. Little Moschus here is a solitary and territorial creature, very shy and very quiet. The only way other deer know he's there is by his scent. Every drop of his secretion has to adhere well to branches and rocks, and linger there a long, long time. How else can he let the girls know that he's in the neighborhood, and tell all the other guys to get lost? All animal musks are thick, waxy, tenacious, and potent.
If you or I were to smell true musk from the gland of the endangered and protected musk deer Moschus moschiferus, we would most likely find the scent offensive. We would not like the fatty, fecal, urine, and deer pheromone scents that are carried by the underlying sweet musk molecule, muscone.
In my collection of natural essences I have small samples of tinctured civet, castoreum, africa stone, and ambergris. These are sources of animal musk found in nature, and they've been exploited for thousands of years for their properties. The mystique surrounding them drives natural perfumers to great ends to get samples. But what a surprise! Without question, sniffed out of the bottle these are nothing short of nas.ty. Each of these compounds smell vile-- undoubtedly fecal with varying amounts of urine, "stank" and other animal funk. But to be fair, they have their special charms and I'll address them in more detail here one day. Each has a subtle underlying scent that is sweet, enticing, and compelling.

Vegan musk? Yes, in Ambrette seed!

Musks fall into four main categories: 1) nitro musks; 2) macrocyclic musks; 3) indane musks; and 4) lactone musks. Ambrette seed oil contains the macrocyclic compound omega-6-hexa-decene-lactone. While all animal derived macrocyclic musks are ketones, the macrocyclic musks extracted from plants consist of large ringed lactones.

Ambrette seed is considered to be nature's closest equivalent to musk from the musk deer. The plant is also called musk mallow and is very closely related to okra. I could have mistaken this picture to be an okra plant growing in my father's garden!

One grower in India characterizes it this way:  

"Ambrette (Abelmoschus moschatus) is a tropical hibiscus with beautiful bright yellow flowers, and its distinctive seed pods look so similar to okra that the plant is sometimes referred to as “musk okra” or “ornamental okra.”  Ambrette is native to India, where it is known as Mushkdana or Kasturi Bhendi.  The plant grows to just over a meter in height and is an evergreen shrub.  When mature the pods split open to reveal kidney-shaped seeds that have a sweet, flowery, heavy fragrance.

Ambrette (seed) oil is pale yellow, with an enchanting aroma described variously as sweet, rich, warm, musky, fatty and nutty, with floral overtones.  After a short period of aging, more complex notes can emerge, such as wine, brandy, fruit, and tobacco."

Ambrette seed is one of the newest additions to my collection. When I first smelled it out of the packaging on arrival, I was put off by it. But the packaging was heated from sitting in the mail box and I didn't want to wait for it to cool (surely it was 110 degrees or hotter). I've seen other natural perfumer reviews also describe it the way it first hit me -- oily.

Today's experience was different and more pleasant. The first impression I had was "liqueur" followed immediately by "nutty." Looking closer, much more comes to the surface. It is rich and complex, with a twist that I can only describe as "oily fruit." For those of you familiar with Asian delicacies, jack fruit and lichee come to mind; both of these pungent fruits have distinct floral notes which is why I enjoy them so much.

The Ultimate Attractant - your own skin

On its own, ambrette seed doesn't do anything for me. I genuinely dislike it on the scent strip. However, something happens to it on skin, blending with my own odors. Some perfumers even describe it as smelling like skin. This actually makes sense, now that I've worked with it a little. Because ambrette doesn't contain any animal secretions, its musk molecule can capture and hold the wearer's own scent, as her oils and natural fragrance blend with the ambrette seed. Perhaps it acts as a skin scent magnifier or enhancer.

Being a medical acupuncturist, I have training and experience in detecting and characterizing the five main types of human skin odors. These are Water - putrid (rotten eggs), Wood - rancid (soured), Fire - scorched, Earth - sweet, Metal - rotten (musty). Ambrette seed can be said to possess, of the five choices, musty sweetness. However, on my skin I perceive it as tin or metallic with sweet undertones, not musty. And I find this intriguing, that I perceive it to transform itself to express its elemental quality on my skin.

Ambrette has, in theory, all of the qualities I need for my client's perfume -- a musk fixative, plus floral notes but not too sweet, with tobacco, fruit/candy, "and more." I worked it into a blend today with a tiny bit of africa stone, a little vanilla, tobacco, jasmine, and rose to achieve a very warm and luscious accord with a smooth dry down. The primary heart and top notes are undetermined but there are a few strong candidates. Will keep you posted!


  1. I just found your blog today(linked from Eden Botanical website) I really enjoy reading your impressions and information on essences. I wanted to add about the ambrette; to me, straight out of the bottle it smells like peanuts! I do like it after it has mellowed on a scent strip, but it is best on skin. I find it ends up smelling like the classic 'musk oils' of the 70's and 80's. It has become a favorite and I use it along with civit and ambergris and other botanical ingredients.
    And speaking of skin, a coworker who is also a perfumer explained to me that the musky notes that have a skin like aspect act as a bridge and assimilator between the perfume wearer's skin and the other notes of the perfume.

  2. Dear Dr . Jean This is a very informative and wonderful blog post. Thank you for sharing this knowledge. We are running a Super critical Co2 extraction facility near Bangalore. I was told that Ambrette Co2 extract may be a good product to try in Co2 extraction ? What are your views ?