Ambergris is really one of the weirdest ingredients used in the cosmetics industry.  It is a foul smelling substance that is from time to time washed  up on beaches around the world.  It was in the news in the UK back in February when a man called Ken Whitman found a huge chunk of it on Morecambe beach.  He was alerted to it when his dog found it fascinating.  

For many years nobody knew its origin.  But this didn’t stop it getting used in top quality fragrances.  It acts as a fixative – making other notes in the perfume clearer.  It also has its own pungent smell which is unpleasant on its own but adds something to the mix in a fine fragrance blend.

With the advent of industrial whaling it was discovered that it was a secretion that occurs in the intestines of sperm whales.  Not any whale – about 1 in 20.  It still isn’t known why the whales produce it but it seems likely it is a protective substance to stop sharp things that the whale swallows doing it any harm.

The lure of ambergris was one of the reasons whalers risked their lives to bring in sperm whales.  There were plenty of products that could be made from a whale carcass, but if it contained ambergris as well it was exceptionally profitable.   Whaling is not something we approve of nowadays, and to help make it unappealing the trade in ambergris is banned in many countries, though not in the UK.

Big finds of ambergris usually make the news, but the one in the news at the moment is astonishingly large.  A whale carcass washed up on a beach in Holland was found to contain 83Kg of the stuff.  The value of this much is hard to guess, but it is going to run into hundreds of thousands of Euros.  In fact it is probably enough to temporarily depress the market price.

But it is unlikely to dull the demand for long.  For as long as there are whales producing it, there will be interest in this odd but fascinating ingredient.

Here is the news story.

3 thoughts on “Ambergris”

  1. Ambergris ‘fresh from the whale’ isn’t of any use, so whales aren’t killed to obtain it.

    Fresh ambergris has to float around the ocean for some time, where the action of the water and sunlight on the ambrein it contains form ambrox, dihydro ionone gamma and ambrinol (amongst others.) The fragrance industry uses synthetic substitutes such as Ambroxan, that are chemically identical to the main ingredient. I have some Ambroxan. It has a unique odour – warm, slightly mineral, and sweet – that you’d probably recognise (it’s in a lot of perfumes.) Genuine ambergris – which has a more complex odour profile due to the trace chemicals it contains – isn’t used much because it’s very expensive, of highly variable quality, and there just isn’t enough to go around.

  2. Very interesting post Colin!

    Whilst doing some research last week, I came across a National Geographic article stating that one pound could be valued at up to USD 63,000. By way of comparison, gold at yesterday’s price (31-DEC-13) was USD 1,202.30 per ounce or USD 17,553.58 per pound.

    Like most ‘wild harvested’ ingredients, I’m sure there’s likely to be extreme variability in pricing ambergris.

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