In my last blog post, we explored the types of smells associated with the seashore. However, there is one other important aromatic found, very occasionally, on the beach – ambergris. The name translates as ‘grey amber’ which gives a clue to its appearance. Ambergris can be found washed up on the shores of New Zealand, Australia and the Indian Ocean, and it has long held an important place in perfumery, as a medicine, aphrodisiac and incense. Originally it was thought to be bird excrement, or congealed gum or bitumen, or even a marine fungus. However, it is none of these; it is a pathological secretion that occurs in just 1% of adult male sperm whales. The formation of ambergris can only be described as natural alchemy, where water, air and sunlight transform malodorous matter into a rare and costly perfume material.
The 50 tonne sperm whale, Physeter macrocaphalus, feeds on squid and cuttle fish, consuming around a tonne of food a day. The indigestible parts of the squid – its beak-like mouth parts, the lenses of the eyes and an internal organ known as the ‘pen’ – begin to accumulate, conglomerate and irritate the whale’s four stomachs. Normally, every few days this will be vomited out into the sea. However, sometimes the mass passes on from the stomach into the intestines, where it continues to irritate whilst becoming saturated with faeces, and this eventually blocks the rectum. As a result, more water will be absorbed from the intestines and eventually the mass becomes condensed and smooth, so that the faeces can pass again. The entire process can repeat several times, each time increasing the size of the obstruction. Kemp (2012) tells us that the largest piece of ambergris on record was from a whale killed in 1953, weighing almost half a tonne.
Sometimes the whale can pass the obstruction, but other times it is fatal, causing the intestines to rupture. Either way, the blackened sticky mass enters the ocean waters, where it can remain for decades, floating just under the surface. It is the time spent in the sea that transforms the appearance and odour of ambergris. When expelled, it looks like tar and has, unsurprisingly, a faecal smell. With time, and the influence of salt water, sunlight, waves and tides, it shrinks, becomes smoother, lighter grey in colour and more stone-like, with black flecks. The smell changes beyond recognition – it becomes complex and reminiscent of tobacco, musty and woody, like old furniture, earthy and seaweed like. Although it looks like a stone, it will soften at 60°, and will melt in boiling water.
According to Jouhar (1991) there are ten distinct types of ambergris. The best is pure white or silver grey from New Zealand. Other types are golden from the coast of North Africa, golden grey from the Gulf of Aden, pale yellow from Australia, dark grey or black with golden striations from the Azores, hard black from all parts of the world, dry and dark grey from the Persian Gulf and dark reddish brown from Madagascar. Ambergris is one of the most valuable natural substances costing around $20 per gram – around half the price of gold. It is no wonder then that beachcombers in New Zealand walk for miles in the hope of finding this ‘floating gold’. Not only is its formation a unique process, it is also a unique raw material in perfumery. Although it is derived from a mammal, it does not smell ‘animalic’ like the other animal-derived perfume materials such as castoreum, civet and musk. Also, because some whales eliminate ambergris naturally, it can be collected without causing any further suffering.
The original formulae of some of the classic fine fragrances, such as the floral-aldehydic Chanel No.5 (Ernest Beaux 1921) and the warm, sweet ambery Shalimar (Jacques Guerlain 1925) contained the alcoholic tincture of ambergris. However, it is very rare, and very expensive. Also, in recent years, there has been a steadily increasing demand for products free of animal ingredients, and so ambergris is no longer part of mainstream/commercial perfumery. Although ambergris can be found on the beach, it was also once supplied by whalers, and this practice is not acceptable to the vast majority. Modern trade in ambergris is difficult to clarify too, because of differing restrictions enforced by the various countries involved.
So, in order to find something that could replace ambergris in perfumery, there have been several attempts to discover its fragrance ‘markers’ and synthesise substitutes. In 1820, chemists at the School of Pharmacy in Paris investigated ambergris in both its raw form and the tincture. They discovered that white crystals formed in the filtered tincture, and named this ambrein – however, ambrein itself is odourless. Awano et al. (2005) identified thirty one constituents in ambergris tincture, which they classed as degradation products of ambrein, including two novel cyclic acetals. The first of these had a sweet, warm, amber-like odour, and the second had a long-lasting, gentle note of ambergris. Neither of these was detected in the raw ambergris, so were presumed to be artefacts of the tincture making process, and it was suggested that they were promising substances for future use in perfumery. According to Kemp (2012), mature ambergris contains the tobacco-like dihydro-gamma-ionone, the seawater-like butanal, the mouldy, faecal alpha-ambrinol and ambergris oxide, which is the component with the odour most like ambergris. Synthetic substitutes include ‘Ambrox’ and ‘Synambrane’, but according to perfumers they do not smell like ‘the real thing’.
A few artisan perfumers will use a tincture made from ambergris sourced from the beach. Other perfumers will use naturals such as labdanum – the oleo-resin from the flowering shrub Cistus ladaniferus – which has a rich, sweet, balsamic odour that is reminiscent of ambergris. Indeed, an ambergris ‘base’ can be constructed using – labdanum, olibanum (frankincense) and vanilla. It is not likely that many of us will ever have the chance to smell genuine ambergris, so instead we can use our olfactory imagination, and maybe source some labdanum to see if we can smell the ambergris-like element. If any of you have been fortunate enough to smell ambergris – let us know what your impressions were.
Awano, K.,Ishizaki, S., Takazawa, O. and Kitahara, T. (2005) Analysis of ambergris tincture. Flavour and Fragrance Journal 20, 18-21.
Jouhar, A.J. (ed) (1991) Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps Volume 1: The Raw Materials of Perfumery 9th Edition. London: Chapman and Hall.
Kemp, C. (2012) Floating Gold: a natural (and unnatural) history of ambergris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Written by: Jennifer Rhind