Arabians Used Ambergris Whale Feces To Make Perfume!
The origin of ambergris was a mystery for many hundreds of years. Christened “floating gold”, for millennium various cultures have been using ambergris and attributing it with fantastical qualities. Employed by high-end parfumiers, users were blissfully ignorant that they were actually dousing themselves with the sweet scent of whale excrement.
Ambergris is a rare material, often found washed up on beaches. Arab cultures used ambergris variably as an aphrodisiac, medicine or even as incense. In 14th century Europe, it was worn in pomanders, which were perforated balls containing ambergris and other aromatics, used as protective amulets to ward off the Black Death .
Meanwhile King Charles II was fond of eating ambergris with eggs. In 1685, Robert May described it as “both woody and floral,” with a smell reminiscent of “leaf litter on a forest floor and of the delicate, frilly undersides of mushrooms that grow in damp and shaded places.”
People have been theorizing about where ambergris comes from since the Middle Ages. The Chinese assumed it was created when dragon spit fell into the ocean, while one 15th century encyclopedia posited that it was either tree sap, sea foam or crystalized tears. Its mysterious origins only added to its allure, turning it into a highly sought-after commodity.
Sperm whales are now facing extinction due to the advent of large-scale whaling in the 19th century, which viewed whales as a valuable commodity. ( Public domain )
With the 19th-century advent of large-scale whaling, the connection between ambergris and whales was made. Nevertheless, scientists are still not 100% sure as to exactly how it’s created. In Floating Gold, Christopher Kemp described it as a kind of intestinal gut-slurry only produced by sperm whales.
Sperm whales feed on cephalopods, such as squid, whose sharp beaks and pens irritate its digestive system and become a mass thought to, sometimes, block the whales’ rectum. Most agree that it usually passes as feces. Ambergris is created by only one to five percent of sperm whales, probably suffering from indigestion.
Fresh ambergris is dark, gooey and of little interest. But after floating in the water for years, ambergris becomes hard, pale – ranging from grey to white – and incredibly valuable. It was only in 2020 that Biology Letters settled centuries of speculation by conducting DNA analysis on ambergris samples and concluding it was created by sperm whales.
Ambergris is actually a kind of intestinal gut-slurry only produced by now-endangered sperm whales, known as Physeter macrocephalus. ( Stanislav / Adobe Stock)
Ambergris, the mature kind, is still used in the perfume world, most famously in Chanel No. 5, particularly because of its fixative properties. It is also used by mixologists in upscale saloons. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick , he quipped: “Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!”
Worth more than its weight in gold, mature ambergris findings are often reported like lottery winnings, with the ambergris hunters often raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite evoking the Emperor’s New Clothes , experts describe ambergris as a complex, intoxicating scent, like a blend of musky vanilla and seawater.
Top image: Mature ambergris, a.k.a. amber gris, is a valuable commodity which often washes up on the shore. Source: spline_x / Adobe Stock