Ambergris Part II

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Physeter macrocephalus

The sperm whale or cachalot is the largest of the toothed whales and the largest toothed predator. Mature males average 16 meters in length but some may reach 20.7 meters.

Plunging to 2,250 metres it is the deepest diving mammal,

Ambergris, one of the world’s unlikeliest commodities. The waxy substance formed in the gut of around one in sperm whales is frequently described as vomit, but is almost certainly expelled from the other end of the animal. Fresh ambergris has a strong fecal odor and is much less valuable than aged specimens. Despite its origins, ambergris, with its unique scent, fixative properties, and perceived ability to elevate other olfactory notes, has been prized by the perfume industry for hundreds of years. For centuries It has also been consumed as a delicacy and administered as medicine. At times, it has fetched prices more than twice that of gold. Today, it still changes hands for up to US $18-50 per gram, a price approaching that of platinum and many times that of silver-gold and can mean a payday of thousands of dollars for a tennis ball–sized chunk.

Ambergris has also featured in great works of literature, including Moby Dick.

Though ambergris has been traded since at least the Middle Ages, we still know remarkably little about the substance. Even the fact that it originates from sperm whales is a relatively recent discovery. For hundreds of years—even as beachcombers were finding ambergris washed up on shore and sailors were recovering the substance from carcasses—naturalists and physicians treated the theory that whales produce ambergris as outlandish. Ninth-century Muslim travel writers proposed that whales likely consume a substance produced elsewhere and later regurgitate it, a view that remained in claimed for several centuries.

The Hortus Sanitatis, an encyclopedia of herbal medicines published in 1491, cited theories claimed that ambergris was tree sap, a type of sea foam, or some kind of fungus. In the 12th century, reports from China suggested ambergris was dried dragon spittle. It has at various times been proposed to be a fruit, fish liver, or a precious stone. According to a 2015 paper from the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, “By 1667, eighteen different claimed existed on this matter and various animals were considered producers of this substance—including seals, crocodiles, and even birds

Part of the uncertainty ,definitely, stems from the fact that by the time ambergris arrives on land, it can resemble any number of other substances. When fresh, it is black and viscous, but over time at sea it hardens and takes on lighter hues of brown, gray, or white. Recorded finds have ranged in size from tiny pebbles, weighing just a few grams, to boulders the size of a person. Hopeful collectors are frequently disappointed to learn they have acquired rocks, rubber, sea sponges, lumps of wax or fat, and, in some unfortunate cases, dog shit.


Even the term ambergris is the result of a misunderstanding. The word is derived from the old French term ambre gris, meaning gray amber, distinguishing the substance from amber resin—fossilized tree sap that was also used in fragrances and found on beaches. Beyond this, the two substances bear no relation. Still, the misnomer corrected an even earlier error: amber resin likely took its name from ambar-amber, the Arabic word for ambergris.

Arabic society, which embraced ambergris as a medicine at least as early as the ninth century, and later as a super perfume ingredient, introduced the substance to the West and World; ambergris became widespread in both cultures throughout the Middle Ages. During the Black Death, the bubonic plague pandemic that swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, wealthy citizens hung spherical containers known as pomanders filled with ambergris and other fragrant materials from their necks or belts in the misguided belief that the plague was caused by bad odors. Three hundred years later, King Charles II of Britain is said to have enjoyed eating ambergris with eggs. And ambergris is listed as an ingredient in the world’s earliest known recipe for ice cream and in a 17th-century recipe for punch.

For centuries, mystery and uncertain provenance were driving factors in demand. also It was a very exotic substance. Therefore the fact that people didn’t know where it came from, and there were a lot of stories about it, increased its value.

Also mystery around this whale-derived flotsam has even shaped empires: offbeat reports of ambergris have been cited as factor in Britain’s decision to colonize Bermuda Atlantic Ocean.

The idea that ambergris is the product of illness or injury endures today, but is far from proven. In 2006, the British marine biologist Robert Clarke, who had already studied ambergris for more than 50 years, published a detailed theory claim of how it forms. In The Origin of Ambergris, he proposed that when squid beaks become lodged in a whale’s intestines, fecal matter accumulates around the blockage until “eventually the rectum stretches until it breaks, causing the whale’s death, and the ambergris is released into the sea.” Clarke died in 2011, but his theory is still the most widely accepted, and the presence of squid beaks is considered a decent indicator of genuine ambergris.

Michael Stoddart, former chief scientist at the Australian Antarctic Program, says that, despite the work of a few isolated ambergris researchers such as Clarke, there are large gaps in our scientific knowledge, and he sees little appetite within the scientific community for investigating the phenomenon. “Whale biologists would regard it as a kind of an oddity, something that’s rather nice to talk about now and again, but not really worthy of great study,” he says. Several sperm whale researchers approached for this article declare little knowledge of ambergris. “I have collected sperm whale feces for over a decade and never come across it,” says one. “I don’t know anyone who is an active researcher on ambergris,” says another. “If you read what has been written in books and papers about it, you will know more than I do.”

Chemists, rather than biologists, have had the most success in studying ambergris. In 1820, researchers in France discovered the active compound and named it ambrein, paving the way for development of synthetic ambergris some 130 years later.

Though scientists cracked the chemical secrets of ambergris long ago, intrigue and the cachet of rarity are difficult to re-create in a lab. Still, an industry-wide move away from animal products and demand for more predictable supply have seen most perfumers shift to Ambrox, Ambrofix, or other synthetics that promise the olfactory properties without the reputational risk related to using animal products for commercial purposes.

In 2017, Professor Steven Rowland of the University of Plymouth in England proposed a method for the verification of ambergris through chemical analysis. Nearly two years later, Rowland’s analysis of 43 ambergris samples from across the globe revealed some were up to 1,000 years old. In a paper declaring his findings, Rowland noted that ambergris “was once a global economic commodity,” but the arrival of synthetic analogs means it “is now largely a rare biological and chemical curiosity.”

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