Perfumes are floral in nature - after all, they originated from the distillation of flowers to obtain oils. However, over the centuries, animal by-products have been used to either enhance or extend the life of a perfume, and some of these may sound strange, even gross. One such example is ambergris.
“ The landscape of perfumery is rife with substances that trigger our sense of wonder, their origins so arcane as to seem mythic, with scents to match—funky, earthy, impossible to describe, at once attractive and repulsive. Perhaps the epitome of this world of wonders is ambergris, with its exotic origins in the digestive tract of sperm whales, and its surprisingly delicate, almost unearthly aroma.” -Mandy Aftel, author of Fragrant
Pronounced with a silent 's', Ambergris, also known as ambergrease or "grey amber" (in French), is a solid, waxy and flammable product secreted by the bile duct in the intestines of male sperm whales. Contrary to popular belief, it is not whale vomit. Ambergris is passed out as faecal matter, and is usually found floating in the sea, washed up on beaches, or in the abdomens of dead sperm whales. It is made up of the indigestible beaks of cuttlefish (the sperm whale's favourite meal), and a waxy substance called ambreine. Considering the size of a sperm whale, ambergris can weigh anything from 15g to 50kg. The most desirable ambergris are those that have floated around the ocean for 20-30 years.
There’s a whole underground network of full-time collectors and dealers trying to make their fortune in ambergris. They know the beaches and the precise weather conditions necessary for ambergris to wash up on the shore.” - Christopher Kemp, author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural ) History of Ambergris
Like musk, ambergris is one of the prized animal by-product used in perfumery. Ancient Egyptians burned it as incense (as they do with many other things), and naturally, was a legendary sea treasure that was highly valuable. Rumour has it that the biggest buyers of raw ambergris are Middle Eastern royals, who consume it as an aphrodisiac. High quality ambergris can be sold for as much as US$25/g.
Used mainly as a base note to help affix perfume to the skin, ambergris has been called an "olfactory gemstone" in the perfume industry. Raw ambergris is still very rare and expensive. Its trade is still legal (except in Australia and the United States) as they are not harvested from live whales, but instead can be found washed up on beaches mostly in the Pacific and Bahamas. They are especially sought after in France. However, since the 1940s, scientist have been creating an alternative to ambergris, a compound known as ambroxan. Ambroxan is synthesized from the oils of clary sage.
Fresh ambergris is extremely pungent and smells like manure. When first excreted, it is thick, and black like tar. This is the lowest grade of ambergris. With oxidisation from the air, sun, and salt water, the ambergris hardens and breaks up into grey, waxy chunks. The highest grade of ambergris is white in colour as they have been in the ocean longer. The result is something that is no longer smelly, but generally sweet and earthy (the lighter the ambergris, the sweeter the scent). Its scent has been likened to that of tobacco or wet earth.
James Craven, historian and archivist, enthuses about it in perfumery: “Ambergris lends a scent a tenacious depth, richness, opulence, smoothness, ambiguity, and an unsettling 'do I love it, or hate it?’ quality. It prompts the intriguing thought: 'I am divinely scented and delicious, but am I entirely clean?’
Fun fact: In 2012, an 8 year-old boy Charlie Naysmith from the UK, found a washed-up rock of ambergris that was estimated to be worth US$63,000. In 2015, a 1.1kg lump of ambergris found in Wales was sold to a French buyer for £11,000.
Our range of perfumes that contain ambroxan:
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