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Unsung hero of perfumery

Sperm whale engraving from Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles by Pierre Jean Francis Turpin, published in France by Levrault, 1816.

Behind every successful perfume …

is the intestinal residue from a gigantic deep sea mammal. No? Ok, not in every perfume. But ambergris, the mythical and extremely pricey raw material that lends glow and longevity to countless perfumes, is in fact just that. Here is the story of one of the most fascinating ingredients in perfumery.

Ambergris (grey amber in French) has been used by humans for more than a thousand years. But it was only in the 18th century, when large-scale whaling became common, that the mystery of its origin was solved. Ambergris is produced in the intestines of about one in every 100 sperm whales. It is believed the matter helps the animal pass the hard and sharp mouth parts of its favourite food, giant squid, through its digestive system. At this stage, ambergris is a solid, black, waxy blob with a pungent faecal smell. It is believed to be extruded from the whale as faecal matter.*

“Ambergris begins its long journey in darkness, beneath several hundred tons of seawater, in the warm and cavernous hindgut of a sperm whale.”

Christopher Kemp in Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris

Ambergris consists partly of alkaloids, acids and a fatlike compound called ambrein. Scentless in itself, ambrein oxidizes into various odorous products and by that becomes a key component for perfume use.

The transformation from stinky blob into perfumery must have happens at sea, where the material can float around for up to 30 years, slowly drying, hardening and oxidizing by salt, wind and sun. Before it eventually washes up ashore. By then, it has turned brownish or pale grey to white in colour, white representing the highest quality ambergris. The scent varies but is often described as sweet, musky, salty, earthy, marine, animalic and tobacco-like.

1969 cover of Moby Dick novel. Photo: Museon/Creative Commons.

Floating gold

In perfumery, ambergris is sought-after for its scent as well as for its excellent fixative qualities, helping other perfume materials last longer. Today, the price for ambergris can reach 30 000-40 000 euros per kilo. One recent record breaking example is from 2016, when a fisherman off the coast of Oman found a 80 kilo piece that was initially valued at 3 million dollars.

Pieces of ambergris. Photo: Peter Kaminski/Creative Commons.

“In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents”

Herman Melville in Moby Dick

With such prices comes the risk sperm whales will be hunted and killed in the search for ambergris. Or, more likely, subject to ”ambergris-laundering” where the material from a dead or dying whale stranded on a beach is hacked out and passed off as ”beach cast” ambergris. All this has prompted some countries, among others the USA, to ban all trade with ambergris. In Europe, where all species of whales are protected by law, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), that states ambergris is a waste product that occurs naturally and is legal to collect from the beach or sea, is considered enough of a precautionary measure. Still, the matter is sensitive.

For reasons not so much to do with the ethical aspects of ambergris but more with the economic, and with difficulties sourcing ambergris of consistent quality, few of today’s perfumes contain the real thing. Synthetic replacements exist in numerous varieties, one of the most common being ambroxan. But if you are looking for real ambergris, then small-scale artisan, niche and natural perfume brands are where you would want to look.

A life away from nosy humans

Mother and baby sperm whale off the coast of Mauritius. Photo: Gabriel Barathieu/Creative Commons

Much about the life of the gigantic, odd-looking sperm whale is still unknown. Most of their lives is spent deep down in the ocean, away from nosy humans and scientific light. Sperm whales can live 70 years or more. Females and calves live together in groups while the adult males live solitary lives outside of the mating season. Females give birth every 4 to 20 years and care for their calves for more than a decade. Adult sperm whales can grow to be 20 metres long. One third of their body consists of the head and they have the largest brain of all living creatures. Their hunt for fish and cuttlefish is carried out at as far down as 3 000 metres deep, making the sperm whale one of the world’s deepest diving mammals.

So, when sniffing your vintage Creed, Dior or Guerlain, or modern Roja Dove, niche or natural perfumes, lend a thought to the magnificent animal that had all to do with their splendor and success: The sperm whale.

*Even though this is the dominant theory, there are still conflicting opinions as to how ambergris emerges from the whale. Some believe that the whale regurgitates the mass, earning it its well-known nickname ’whale vomit’. Further, with the dominant theory, it is not yet clear whether the extrusion takes place in an everyday fashion after which the mammal goes on its merry way or if the big lump eventually causes a fatal rupture in the animal’s rectum.

Sources:

“Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris”, Natural History Museum, London, Natural History Magazine, Nature.com, Sciencealert.com, Basenotes.net, Wikipedia

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