Ambergris: A Perfume Ingredient with an Unusual Origin

ambergris

Ambergris is a valuable substance that originates in a sperm whale’s digestive system. (Photo credit: Michael Freeman/Corbis)

When a “strange and mysterious” object washed ashore on a public beach in Wellington, New Zealand, rumors began to spread that it was ambergris. Soon after, fortune hunters arrived and tore the mysterious substance apart with shovels, collecting pieces in plastic bags. At $10-$20 per gram, even a small portion could reap a large reward. However, not long after its discovery, it was found that the mysterious object was actually just a large block of lard.

Before this event, molecular biologist Christopher Kemp had never even heard of ambergris. But after seeing the frenzy that the faux-ambergris had incited, he became “obsessed with ambergris and the idea of stumbling over something on the beach that might be a worth thousands of dollars.” He recently documented this obsession in his book Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris.

So, what exactly is ambergris, anyway? Ambergris is a solid, waxy substance that is produced by the digestive system of sperm whales. Scientists hypothesize that ambergris is used by the whale’s digestive system to ease the passage of sharp objects from the things they eat, such as squid beaks. Hardened pieces of ambergris often contain bits of squid beak and other sharp objects.

Though often referred to as “whale barf,” it is thought that ambergris actually exits the whale through the, uh, other end of the digestive tract. Although ambergris at first smells as one would expect something to smell after being ejected from the body, over time it acquires a sweet, earthy scent, which some liken to the smell of fresh mulch.

“Like lots of other strange natural substances, ambergris is valuable because of its rarity,” Kemp explains. “It is only produced by sperm whales, and only by an estimated one percent of them. Once expelled by a whale, it must float for years. Then it must make landfall, avoid being broken into pieces by rough seas, and someone must find it. In other words, the odds of finding ambergris are extremely small. All these factors make it very valuable.”

Most perhaps identify ambergris with the perfume industry, where it is used as a fixative for other scents. Ambergris “fixes” the other scents in the perfume, allowing them to be more pronounced and last longer than they would otherwise. Other uses for ambergris include as an incense, as a food flavoring (purportedly as an aphrodisiac), and as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other physical ailments. During the Middle Ages, some thought ambergris could protect people from contracting the Black Death if they held a piece of it beneath their nose.

Originally, ambergris was taken from whales as a part of the harvesting process. During the late 1700s to mid-1850s, the whaling industry especially targeted sperm whales as a source of spermaceti—an oily substance contained in its head and used to make smokeless candles—and ambergris. Estimates indicate that as many as 5,000 sperm whales were killed each year during that time period. As recent as the 1960s, 30,000 sperm whales were harvested in one season. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling.

Because it is sourced from an endangered species, international regulatory agencies banned the use of ambergris in the 1970s. In 2005, it again became legal to use ambergris. However, it can only come from distributors that can ensure that the ambergris was collected only after it had washed ashore and wasn’t harvested by any other method. But today many fragrance companies have phased out the use of ambergris, and instead use synthetic versions to avoid any legal ambiguity. American fragrance companies are especially careful, as the sperm whale is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 prohibits the sale or trade of parts or products from any endangered species.

“Whether or not perfumers still use ambergris is a bit of a mystery,” Kemp said. “It’s not something an established and successful perfumer like Chanel will discuss.”

Recently, researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered a potential alternative to ambergris. Joerg Bohlmann, a professor of Botany and Forest Sciences, worked with Philipp Zerbe, a postdoctoral research associate, to identify a gene in balsam fir trees that could be used by the fragrance industry to produce an inexpensive fixative and scent.

“The use of ambergris in the fragrance industry has been controversial,” Bohlmann said in a press release about the discovery. “First of all, it’s an animal byproduct and the use of such in cosmetics has been problematic, not to mention it comes from the sperm whale, an endangered species.”

“We’ve now discovered that a gene from the balsam fir is much more efficient at producing such natural compounds, which could make production of this bio-product less expensive and more sustainable,” Bohlmann said.

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This article was originally published on BioZine in April 2012.

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