Perfumers work with a seemingly infinite number of ingredients all of which need to be memorized (at least in theory). In addition to these individual elements—chemicals, absolutes, and essential oils—are accords, which are combinations of more than one ingredient (think of a musical chord). Some of these accords are deeply personal and idiosyncratic, while others are part of the lingua franca of perfume making. One of the latter is the ambreine accord.
The first time I put together an ambreine accord, I thought I had discovered the secret to the original version of Shalimar. Clearly, a similar accord is at play in that beautiful perfume. It is a simple accord and, while it comes in many versions, it is usually based on six compounds—vanillin (or ethyl vanillin), coumarin, civet, bergamot, patchouli, and, often, vetiver. In a perfume as extravagant as Shalimar, the original version would have also contained relatively high levels of natural rose and jasmine.
Recognizing that Shalimar contains a leather element, I added a goodly amount of castoreum which turned it a deep golden. I added spices—nutmeg (absolute), coriander, cinnamon and cloves—to balance the intensity of the castoreum. This all led to a deeply animalic and spicy perfume which needed to be lightened with top notes.
Many of the classic top notes—neroli, bergamot (already used), orange, rosewood (or linalool)—are built into an accord and placed on top of the ambreine concoction. I kept things simple and added rosewood (instead of linalool) and neroli to lead into the heart notes of the perfume.
When I carefully combined the various elements, and sniffed eagerly, my concoction was definitely not Shalimar. It was indeed an oriental (a traditional perfume family) but had none of the radiance of the real vintage thing.