It’s been prized since the pyramids were built and even played a part in the plot of Moby Dick. Fourteen years ago, a 30-pound chunk found on an Australian beach sold for £186,500. It lends an earthy, marine, animalic scent to perfume, but it’s illegal to possess or trade it here in the United States; the animal that produces it is endangered.
Of course, we’re talking about ambergris, the dull whiteish-gray (aged, cured and of the highest quality), sometimes black (uncured), waxy substance expelled by sperm whales. (Yes, you read that right. Nature is weird.) It was often believed to be expelled by the whale vomiting, however researchers are now saying it comes from small intestine of the sperm whale that is excreted from the anus along with its...poo. Even more research is saying that it is only produced by 1% of male sperm whales.
So why do they produce this?
Thought to be produced by the sperm whales to ease the passage of sharp squid beaks that they swallow, it takes years (10-20) to form and often floats in the ocean for even longer before washing up on the shore.
It’s mainly found in the Atlantic Ocean and most of the ambergris sold commercially comes from the Bahamas and New Zealand.
How does it come into play in perfumery you ask?
Highly prized for its unique scent, it has played a key role as a base note in innumerable perfumes over the years. But sperm whales were killed by the thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whale oil, whale bone and ambergris were all highly prized and very lucrative. Many types of whales were hunted almost to extinction. The International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. And while ambergris can also be found washed up on beaches, the substance was regulated or outright banned in the US, Australia and many other countries.
Perfumers had an ethical dilemma when it came to ambergris. Using it meant possibly flouting laws and harming an endangered species, not to mention the high cost of the relatively rare substance, remember that it's only found in 1% of male sperm whales.
There are typically 2 reasons to use ambergris in a perfume formula.
First would be for its fixative properties. Ambergris has the ability to "fix" a fragrance, that's why we call it a fixative note. A fixative note gives a formula a "magic" touch. It's like giving it a gentle kiss and viola, it's got that certain something that you can't quite put your finger on yet the magic wand has played its part.
The other reason it is used is for its aromatic properties. Depending on whether is it natural or man-made, its olfactive aspects can range from salty and marine-like to sweet, tobacco-like, earthy, or even a muted vanilla.
Where does science come into play?
Scientists began experimenting to find an alternative to natural ambergris. How could they get the same aromatic qualities as well as having a fixative effect on perfume compositions?
Enter Cetalox, also known as Ambroxan, depending on who manufactures it. Synthesized from a component of clary sage essential oil, it is almost identical in chemical make-up to ambrein, the fatty, cholesterol-like component of ambergris responsible for its odor. Why use it: it mimics both the fixative and aromatic properties of ambergris; is not illegal and is much less expensive than its natural counterpart. It offers a woody, earthy musk that appears in a number of laundry detergents today. That burst of freshness, like laundry hung outdoors to dry, floods the nose at first, before fading to a muskier, earthier tone.
You can take a full dive into the the fascinating world of ambergris with Christopher Kemp, an American biologist on an academic visit to New Zealand where a spectacle on Breaker Bay prompted him to embark on an obsessive study of the substance during his two-year stay in New Zealand. Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris (The University of Chicago Press, 2012), explains what ambergris in detail while giving sense of its historical and current uses, and recounts, in lushly descriptive and often lyrical prose, the author’s dogged beach treks in search of it.
Ready to trade in seashell picking for ambergris hunting at your local beach? Click HERE to learn how to identify and grade your precious ambergris...if you find it.
Is amber the same as ambergris?
No. Amber is a tree resin of the baltic pine tree. A hard, yellow tree resin with a high burning point that is transparent and heavier than water. Whereas ambergris is of animal origin, coming from the sperm whale, has a low burning point (you stick a hot needle through it to test its authenticity, is porous, opaque and waxy and floats in water.
Amber in perfumery today is and accord, a combination of labdanum (rockrose extract), vanilla, benzoin, and sometimes copal resin for a warm, honeyed, sweet, and resinous aromatic feel.
Want to smell it in a fragrance?
Get your nose on Juliette Has a Gun’s Not a Perfume Superdose, offered in the April 2020 Collection, On Skin. This single molecule fragrance (its only cetalox, a superdose of it) shows you what it smells like in its pure, albeit synthetic, form. Want to get a feel for concentration levels, try the original, Not a Perfume by Juliette has a Gun, for a smaller dose of the same ingredient.
Fun fact: Because of its single molecule composition, it's hypoallergenic and perfect for adding depth and dimension to another fragrance through layering. Simply layer it on top of or after (each way with give you different aromatic responses) applying another fragrance on your skin. Juliette has a Gun created a Blending Kit to get you started with ease. We even put it on sale this week so you can have some fun!
Want to smell ambergris within a fragrance, cradled by other notes? Get your nose on Sex and Jasmine by Libertine Fragrance, another fragrance in our April 2020 Collection. Get cozy with a Q & A session with perfumer Josh Smith HERE.
Don't forget, you can search the Olfactif website by ingredient and see what fragrances contain it. Click HERE for an ambergris search.
Read more about ambergris here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-whale-waste-is-valuable/
Sperm Whale Photo Credit: © Gabriel Barathieu /Wikimedia Commons
Ambergris Photo Credit: © Hermitage Oils
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