Much was made, not long ago, of the discovery on a British beach of a whacking great lump of greyish-beige waxy material – which turned out to be worth thousands of pounds. That was ambergris, one of the most valuable and legendary ingredients in perfumery, prized for its ability as a fixative, to enhance a fragrance’s staying power by anchoring the more volatile ingredients, and ‘round it out’.
It’s basically whale poo. Yes, really: ambergris is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales – to make it easier for the whale to digest shard objects (like squid beaks), so it’s thought. Usually, the whale vomits these sharp bits. If not, they travel further down the gut and are covered in ambergris: a sticky, gelatinous material which dries to a lump with a resinous texture and then floats on the surface, ending up on beaches in places like South Africa, the East Indies, China, Japan, New Zealand – even Dorset. When it’s first produced, it’s useless as a fragrance ingredient – definitely faecal, at that point. As it ages, the smell matures and develops beautifully, and before it can be used perfumery, it must be diluted with alcohol.
Chemist Gunther Ohloff once described ambergris as ‘humid, earthy, faecal, marine, algoid, tobacco-like, sandalwood-like, sweet, animal, musky and radiant’. Others comment that it can smell a bit like the wood in old churches, or Brazil nuts. It’s been used in fragrance for millennia: the ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while the Chinese referred to ambergris as ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’. During the Black Death in Europe, it was believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could prevent plague.
Wild-harvested supplies are obviously extremely erratic – and many countries have outlawed the trade of ambergris, as part of a more general ban on the exploitation and hunting of sperm whales, so ambergris tends to be created synthetically.
Although it’s called ‘grey amber’ (ambergris), it’s not to be confused with amber.
There’s an entire book dedicated to the story of ambergris: Floating Gold. Read more about it here.
NB This visual is of the painting Fumée d’Ambergris by John Singer Sargent
Smell ambergris in:
Balmain Ambre Gris