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Library at Thebes, inscription over the door
Making Scents of Information
There are a lot of misconceptions about the use of amber oil in aromatherapy; amber is not an essential oil that is used in therapeutic aromatherapy practice. However, amber oil is a term that can be used to describe several types of products, both natural and synthetic.
The Use of Ambergris in Ancient Perfumes
Many historical records show the use of amber as an ingredient in ancient perfumes; this type of amber was commonly derived from ambergris or labdanum. Ambergris (literally meaning “gray amber” in the French language) originates from sperm whales and is essentially a re-regurgitation of the whale's food; it had a unique aroma that was extensively sought after by perfumers as a fixative for perfumes. However, today it is rare to find ambergris that has been produced by sperm whales due to the endangerment to the species. The majority of ambergris fragrances are now synthetically produced.
The Use of Labdanum in Ancient Perfumes
Labdanum is the sticky, resinous gum produced by the rock rose (Cistus ladanifer). Rock rose does produce an essential oil but it is predominately used in the perfumery industry. Rock rose essential oil is either steam distilled from labdanum gum or the leaves of the plant are steam distilled. According to Julia Lawless, in The Aromatherapy Garden, rock rose essential oil is used in aromatherapy for depression, shock and grief.
Amber Resins and Gums
Perhaps the most familiar form in which many associate with amber is that as a resin or gum; after all, many plants and animals have been found preserved in amber tree resin. However, this type of amber is a fossilized tree resin, meaning that it the solid preservation of historic plants and animals. It is not the same as the gum resin that is steam distilled from the Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) tree and used as an essential oil. It has preserved many plants and animals historically but is unusable as an aromatic oil (in liquid form) for therapeutic practice.
“Natural” amber resins and gums are produced from the combination of one or more essential oils and/or carrier oil bases; synthetic amber resins and gums are produced in a laboratory.
Levant Styrax and Benzoin Essential Oil
Levant styrax essential oil is extracted from the Liquidambar orientalis tree; the tree produces a liquid from beneath the bark which forms a semi-solid mass with a fragrance that some describe as “amber.” The semi-solid mass is steam distilled into an essential oil that is used in therapeutic aromatherapy practice. Levant styrax essential oil is used to treat anxiety, wounds and respiratory problems.
Benzoin is extracted from the Styrax benzoin tree to produce a resinoid or absolute that is used in aromatherapy; depending on the Styrax plant species that produces benzoin (it is available from several different species), benzoin in its raw form can resemble the look of “fossilized” amber; it also has a sweet, balsamic fragrance.
Amber Oil in Aromatherapy
In conclusion, you can see that amber oil may be a composition of one or more of the varieties of amber described above. The scent of amber oil is a rich, musky, earthy fragrance and many strive to re-create this particular fragrance either through a combination of natural resources or synthetic substitutes. There is no such substance as amber essential oil but it is possible to combine either natural or synthetic substances (including essential oils) to produce a product with the look and fragrance of a product many know as amber oil.
-Lawless, Julia, 1995, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, UK: Thorsons
-Lawless, Julia, 2001, The Aromatherapy Garden, UK: Kyle Cathie Ltd
-Journal of Essential Oil Research, Vol. 17 March/April 2005, Characterization of the Portuguese-grown Cistus ladanifer Essential Oil, Paula B. Gomes, Vera G. Mata and A.E. Rodrigues
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