Whales are amazing, and we know that humans have used whales to create many products in the past. Now, most of us realize these creatures are priceless and we want to preserve and protect them and their ocean habitat. But there is one whale product you could well have in your home without realizing it. Don’t worry though – no whales are harmed in obtaining it.
Ambergris, also known as floating gold, is produced by sperm whales. It is extremely rare, leading to it being extremely expensive. Perfume makers use it to make their fragrances last longer, although due to the impossibility of obtaining a reliable, steady source of ambergris, most perfume manufacturers today use synthetic versions.
Long ago, before people learned exactly what it was, it was considered a delicacy in places. King Charles II of England reported loved to dine on eggs and ambergris. Ancient Egyptians burned it as incense. In the past, it has been used in cocktails, medicine and chocolate. So what exactly is this floating gold?
First, rest assured you are not going to find it in your drinks, candy or medication today. Ambergris is produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales. But while it is often referred to as “whale vomit”, it is not ordinary whale waste. Much about ambergris remains a mystery, but it appears that whale produce the substance in their digestive tracts when they eat sharp things, such as squid beaks. It’s only rarely found in sperm whale carcasses. But that is still not very appealing! But our ancestors had no idea. They only knew that very rarely, a lump of this mysterious, musky smelling substance would wash up on the beach.
Perfume and Ambergris
Nothing from any creature’s intestines seems a likely material for perfume. And when ambergris is fresh, it smells anything but nice. Reports describe it as ‘fecal’ and ‘marine’. But it changes over time as it floats in the ocean, eventually washes up on shore and dries out. By then it has a musky odor. But it is not ambergris’s scent that perfumers are after.
Ambergris is a source of an odorless alcohol called ambrein, which is used in some perfumes. Ambrein’s function is to make the scent last longer on the skin when the perfume is used. Ambergris changes color as well as scent over time, thanks to oxidation. It ranges from black to white, with shades of grey and brown in between. The lighter then ambergris, the more ambrein it contains and the more valuable it is. Today, only the most expensive and exclusive perfumes use ambrein.
Sperm whales are found all over the world, so theoretically it is possible to find ambergris on almost any beach. While seashells are beautiful and seaweed is fascinating, ambergris is one the most expensive substances on earth. But you won’t find it by keeping an eye out. You’ll know whether you’ve found floating gold or a rock by the smell.