Ambergris, ‘gray amber,’ is a greasy waxy substance that the Sperm Whale either eliminates via fecals, or regurgitates. Floating at sea to wash-up of distant shores perhaps years later, the substance is exposed to the elements of sun and water. The more it ages this way, the more highly prized it becomes.
Ambergris is the aggregate secretion of the bile glands into the intestine of a sperm whale, expelled as a solid mass. The indigestible parrot-like beaks of squid (a favorite food item of sperm whales) are commonly found embedded in ambergris so it is theorized that this greasy substance encapsulates the indigestible sharp and bony irritants and facilitates easier elimination.
Beak of the Giant or Colossal Squid, Commonly found in Ambergris
Sperm whales eliminate ambergris infrequently via normal fecal spoors unless the mass is size-prohibitive. In that case they can regurgitate it. Ambergris is sometimes called ‘whale vomit’ for this reason.
Ambergris, Regurgitated From the Intestine of a Sperm Whale
Ambergris itself has an earthy sweet odor and changes its nature over time. Freshly-eliminated ambergris has a distinct fecal odor to it but with the passage of time and exposure to the elements, it changes to a gentler odor described as similar to the non-pungent odor of rubbing alcohol. The longer ambergris floats at sea and ages, the more valuable it becomes. Like wine, ambergris improves with age.
Uses of Ambergris
Used for a variety of purposes in the past but mainly it is used as a fixative for expensive perfume, similar to the way animal musk glands were formerly used. The ability of ambergris to effectively hold (or ‘fix’) the scent of the rare oils and resins of the fragrance in solution is superior and much longer-lasting to alcohol-based perfume in the same context. The perfume scent lingers on the wearer for a longer period of time with a non-alcohol odor.
The inability to obtain a steady and reliable supply (and similar quality) of this rare naturally-occurring substance is historically part of the exorbitant cost of high-end fragrances. Synthetic substitutes are used these days for emulating the same purpose.
Other uses for ambergris over history include ancient Egyptian incense, and as a food flavoring. In Europe during the Black Plaque it carried on the person where it was thought to be a Black Plague preventative due to its pungent scent which effectively masked the odor of death and decay. The stench of death was thought at the time to be the main vector of the disease. Drowning-out the foul stench with a pleasant odor was deemed to be an adequate preventative. Even today, ambergris is used for scenting albeit for cigarettes, in modern Egypt.
Ambergris was typically not used in fragrances in America because of legal issues concerning the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and even today, due to the potential protests of Animal Rights interests even dispite the fact that this law was challenged and effectively overturned in 2001. It was determined in this challenge that ambergris is not directly a byproduct of the whaling industry but instead, is a substance which whales eliminates naturally and thus, decreed to be exempt from this statutory protection law.
Specimens of ambergris are collected ‘in the wild’ washed-up on beaches and shores of places such Brazil, Africa, China, India, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand, among others locations. Ambergris is also sometimes found floating at sea anywhere in the Atlantic. Its value varies based upon quality (age, potency, etc.) and has in the past commanded a price of upwards of $10.00USD per gram.
A very expensive piece of flotsam vomit indeed.