I know you have heard of amber. The word appears often in the perfume world when talking about oriental fragrances for example. Makes me envision nature caramel. Then you hear of ambergris. One easily assumes these two are, if not the same thing, that at least linked to each other. A very logic assumption and it seems even the perfume industry sometimes likes to be vague. They are not the same… And the difference is significant, so my suggestion is that you keep an eye on which one it is that you are going for when looking for a new fragrance. I will definitely do a post on amber soon but tonight it is time for the nastier of the two.
I will admit, I was a bit surprised the first time I googled ambergris. This, for example, is the first sentence that you find if you look it up on Wikipedia:
Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of and regurgitated or secreted by sperm whales.
If you follow this blog you might have gotten accustomed by now to the fact that perfume and animal secretions have a lot in common, and accepted that probably you have had both one and two of them on your skin. You have also probably noted that most of these secretions are replaced with synthetic options nowadays. But not always. Perfume houses are not always enthusiastic when it comes to defining whether they use synthetic or natural ingredients but I have heard that for example Creed use natural ambergris. Some people are put of by this but in my opinion, if the animal is not harmed and the synthetic option can be allergenic – then nature’s gifts are definitely my preference.
So, ambergris. Fresh ambergris smells bad, like really bad sea smells, I think you know what I mean. But then it changes into a sweet, marine, musky and earthy scent. This process however takes a long time, often many years. You find it not only in the whales, but floating on the sea surface or in the sand. Geographical areas particularly rich in ambergris are the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific. Bahamas is responsible for a large part of the ambergris on the market. Not far from there, you will find the island of Ambergris Caye in Belize which got its name from the large amounts of ambergris washing up on the island’s coast.
Natural ambergris was been banned from use for a period of time as the sperm whale is an endangered species. Nowadays it is legal to use it however, though distributors are instructed to use only the amount that is naturally washed to shore, that is not taken directly from the animal. Every now and then a happy tourist will find ambergris on a beach. If that happens to you this site offers guidance in identification and they will buy it from you as well. You are likely to be rewarded generously.
Ambergris gained its place in perfume history as a fixative. But it has been used in different ways for a long time. In ancient Egypt it was used as incense, and during the plague in Europe it was said that carrying ambergris in your pocket would protect you from the disease. During the Middle Ages it was used to treat headaches, colds and epilepsy. As with most slightly nasty things ambergris has also been considered to be an aphrodisiac.
But that’s not all. Ambergris has been used in cooking to add flavor to various dishes, even in recent times. In December 2009 it was added to a cucumber jelly in a British TV Show. And if you look at cooking discussions in online perfume communities you will find that it appears on dinner plates every now and then. Apparently it goes particularly well with chocolate and eggs.