We did one of those trips through New England when I was a young boy. One of the destinations I was looking forward to was Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. While most of my friends were big on dinosaurs; I was all about whales. Ever since the factoid of the blue whale being the largest animal on Earth lodged in my head that was my giant animal of choice.
Mystic Seaport is a museum dedicated to the New England whaling business. As we walked through the grounds there were two things which caught my attention; scrimshaw and ambergris. Scrimshaw was engraving done on the ivory they harvested from the whales they caught. I was transfixed by an innate ancient quality of the pieces on display. The etching was fabulously intricate in depicting the ships they were on. I would buy a silver ring with a small piece of scrimshaw in it. It was my first piece of jewelry. The second thing was exactly the thing that would intrigue a young boy when I was asked if I wanted to smell whale vomit. “Yes, please” as I waved my hand frantically. I don’t know what I expected but what I smelled was something which smelled of the ocean more than upchuck. Although it was plenty stinky enough to satisfy my adolescent anticipation. When Mandy Aftel contacted me to tell me her latest perfume, Aftelier Perfumes Antique Ambergris, was on the way my now more mature anticipation was piqued.
Ms. Aftel is one of the crown jewels of the American independent perfume community. She was one of the first. She has been giving, as a teacher and a writer, of her knowledge. She also runs the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. One of the stars of that collection is a 100-year-old bottle of antique Ambreine. Now you might think that’s a typo, but it isn’t. Ambreine is the chemical which makes up the floating piece of whale excretion which becomes ambergris. Ambreine in its pure form has no scent. Once it is set forth to float upon the sea, exposed to sun, and eventually to beach itself; the molecule is designed to undergo multiple chemical reactions as the ambreine reacts in multiple directions. The longer it is exposed the more complex the mixture. Once you smell a long-aged sample it will draw you in with its kaleidoscopic nature.
At the request of Ms. Aftel’s best friend, who had fallen hard for the old bottle of ambreine, she decided to create a perfume. This is what has become Antique Ambergris. I also love the idea of a perfume which is based on ancient ingredients is produced as a solid perfume. Ms. Aftel is one of the few producing solid perfumes and I find the tactile quality of smearing a dab very sensual. I know they are difficult to do but for this perfume it fit so well.
After spreading some Antique Ambergris on my skin, the aged ambergris Ms. Aftel uses floats to the top. This is not the century old version from the museum, but it is plenty old enough to be compelling. What is amazing about older perfume ingredients like this is the multitude of grace notes which surround them. Ms. Aftel calls them “phantom notes” but these are way more substantial than flitting wraiths They provide shading impossible to be replicated without having aged. This kind of experience is tripled by her adding in antique civet and aged cypress absolute. As these all come together the essential quality of ambergris, civet, and cypress are there, but it is the grace notes which provide the joy of Antique Ambergris as it develops over hours on my skin. These three notes are supported by a sturdy coumarin but it really is just a pedestal for the stars of the show.
Antique Ambergris has 10-12 hour longevity and low sillage.
Antique Ambergris is an example of what the best independent perfumers can produce with small batch ingredients. There is almost nowhere else something like Antique Ambergris could come from. Ms. Aftel captures the ancient art of scrimshaw with an exquisite perfume etching of antiquity.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Aftelier Perfumes.