What is Ambergris?
There is a common belief that ambergris is whale vomit. But it is now largely believed to be a waste product from the small intestine of the sperm whale that is excreted from the anus along with its poo.
Based on best available evidence, here is how ambergris is thought to be formed:
The sperm whale (a massive mammal) will typically eat up to a ton of squid and other sea creatures a day. The squid beaks, pens, and other indigestible detritus will build up in one of the whale’s four stomachs until it becomes an irritant, whereupon the whale will vomit most of it up. However, some of these beaks and indigestible materials pass through to the gastrointestinal tract.
Once in the gastrointestinal tract, the mass that will later become ambergris begins to form around the squid beaks and other detritus. Because the intestinal tract is really only designed to hold liquid feces and slurry, the whale’s body produces a soft, waxy material to wrap around the beaks and protect the tract from any sharp edges.
This material is thought to be made up of a mixture of ambrein – a fatty cholesterol-type material responsible for the odor of ambergris, bile duct excretions (epicoprostanol), gut effluvia, and liquid feces, which build up to form a solid lump of material called a coprolith. Over time, the pressure from liquid feces hitting this solid lump of hard material increases, finally propelling the ambergris to be excreted along with the (normal) liquid slurry.
That is, if the whale is large enough. In some cases, smaller whales are unable to pass the ambergris, so the mass continues to build until it tears the rectum, causing the whale to die and the ambergris to be released into the ocean.
In other words, ambergris is the result of either a massive poo or a violent death caused by a massive poo.
It takes time (and seawater) to make good ambergris
When ambergris is freshly excreted, it is soft, black, and dung-like in both shape and odor. In its fresh state, it is practically useless as a perfumery ingredient.
Ambergris bobs around in the open ocean for anywhere between ten to twenty years before washing ashore. During this time, it is bleached into its familiar grey-white appearance. The seawater effectively cures and weathers the ambergris, turning it into the hard, waxy substance so prized in perfumery. Washed ashore, it will often bake and cure further under the sun, taking on the mineralic smell of the sand or stones with which it mixes.
Amber ≠ Ambergris
There is some confusion over the terms amber and ambergris – and this confusion dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. The word amber, which comes from the Persiatic word anbar, was the word used in Middle English (Anglo-Saxon language) to describe ambergris. But simultaneously, the word amber evolved in the Romance languages (Latin, French) to mean amber resin – specifically the hard, yellow tree resin that was washing ashore along the Baltic coast at the same time. Since both ambergris and the amber resin were both egg-sized lumps of material washing up on beaches, it is easy to see why people confused amber with ambergris.
The people of the Middle Ages attempted to cut down on confusion by using color theory to distinguish amber from ambergris. Hence, amber resin was originally known as ambre jaune (yellow amber) and ambergris as, well, ambre gris (grey amber), thus-called because of its greyish-whitish cast. However, this only perpetuated the myth that amber and ambergris originated from the same source, differing only in color.
Of course, nowadays everyone understands that ambergris and amber are not from the same family. Here are the main points of comparison:
- Ambergris is of animal origin (a sperm whale); amber is of plant origin (a Baltic pine tree).
- Ambergris has a low burning point (a heated needle passes through it easily); amber has a high burning point (200C+)
- Ambergris is porous, opaque, waxy, lighter than water (it floats); amber is hard, transparent, and heavier than water (it sinks)
- Ambergris can be used directly in perfumery through tincturing; amber resin is not used directly in perfumery because it does not produce its own essential oil*
*There is a fossilized amber resin oil produced through the process of dry distillation, whereby the amber resin is burned, producing a smoky, tarry-smelling oil. However, this is not an essential oil of amber, but a by-product of burning. Fossilized amber oil, when used in a perfume composition, produces a smoky, balsamic effect, and must be dosed very carefully in order not to overwhelm the other notes. It is sometimes called black amber, and is used in some niche perfumes, such as Black Gemstone (Stephane Humbert Lucas).
Amber in modern perfumery is therefore a fantasy composition – an accord – rather than an actual material. It is an abstract idea of warm, honeyed, sweet, and resinous flavors rendered by a combination of labdanum (rockrose extract), vanilla, benzoin, and sometimes copal resin. Ambergris itself may have been once used in the place of labdanum, but that is certainly no longer the case. If you are curious to know more about amber, the accord, and the fragrances that feature it, then there is no better resource than the amazing series on amber by Kafkaesque here and here.
The Legality of Ambergris
In most countries, it is perfectly legal to buy and sell ambergris.
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is the international body that governs, among other things, the trade and use of ambergris. Since 2005, CITES has agreed that ambergris is a ‘found’ material equivalent to flotsam or biological waste like urine and feces, and therefore it is not illegal or unethical to buy and sell lumps of ambergris that wash up on the shore.
However, CITES is not a government and cannot make laws: it is an international agreement to which states sign up voluntarily. That means that signatory countries can choose to enact national laws that adhere to the CITES framework…or not. Either way, a national law made by a government will always supersede the authority of the CITES agreement.
So while it is currently perfectly legal to salvage and sell lumps of ambergris that you find on a beach in the European Union, the UK, and New Zealand, it is illegal in Australia, where it is strictly considered to be a whale product and therefore protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999.
In the US, the legal situation is a little less clear cut. Sperm whales are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which technically means it is illegal for anyone to sell, trade, buy, or otherwise profit from ambergris (because it is a by-product of an endangered species).
However, enforcement of this act is lax in America, and natural perfumers buy and use natural ambergris in their perfumes without fear of indictment by the Federal authorities. The general line of thought in America is that since ambergris is a found, salvaged item like driftwood or other beach detritus, and not the product of hunting or cruelty to the whale by a human, then it’s perfectly ok to sell, buy, and use it.
In other words, American authorities basically agree with the CITES view of ambergris but just haven’t put it into writing yet.
The ethics of ambergris
The consensus is that while beach-cast ambergris is fine, ambergris hacked out of a whale’s gut is not. However, in the case of Middle-Eastern attar perfumery, there is more cultural tolerance for animal-derived substances and therefore, buyers for the large attar companies don’t seem as bound by CITES conventions or ethics as buyers in the West.
For example, when a thirty-ton male sperm whale washed up dead on a beach in Holland in early 2013, with eighty-three kilograms of ambergris lodged in its rectum, the ecological NGO Ecomare oversaw the process of dissecting the dead whale and the Dutch Government oversaw the selling off of the ambergris. The largest portion of this fresh, black ambergris was bought by Ajmal, the Indian attar company that sells to a primarily Middle-Eastern market.
This case shows that there is an appetite even for the freshest, stinkiest grades of ambergris in the Middle-East. It also demonstrates that some buyers for the Middle-Eastern attar companies do not mind trawling in the grey area between hacked-out and beach-cast ambergris.
By the way, ambergris is not ‘hunted’. Ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of a measly one percent of male sperm whales. That translates to one in a hundred sperm whales. In other words, it doesn’t really make sense for hunters to go out and try to kill sperm whales to harvest their ambergris because the sheer odds of finding it make it a losing proposition. Therefore, the incidence of killing sperm whales purely for their ambergris is low to non-existent.
The use of ambergris in perfumery
Ambergris is used in perfumery in two main ways: as a fixative and as a prime component of the perfume’s aroma. Ambergris is a superlative fixative that gives depth and a halo-like glow to the finished perfume. It deepens the impact of all the other notes in a composition and extends the perfume’s tenacity on skin. Think of it like blowing on a fading fire, one’s breath reviving the hot red brilliance of the coals. If ambergris is used as a fixative in the base of a commercially-produced perfume and is not the main note being emphasized, then a synthetic ambergris replacer is normally used in the place of real ambergris.
Ambroxide, sold under the trade names of Ambroxan and Cetalox, is a synthesized material that is almost identical in chemical make-up to ambrein, the fatty, cholesterol-like component of ambergris responsible for its odor. Ambroxide mimics the fixative properties of ambergris perfectly, is cheap to use, of consistent, replicable quality, and very easy to scale up for mass production. It makes no sense to use real ambergris if all you need it for is its fixative properties deep down in the basenotes.
The other use of ambergris in perfumery is as the main fragrant component of a finished perfume, meaning that the perfume will smell quite strongly of ambergris itself. Ambergris has a very complex scent profile which depends on the type and grade used, but it is not very easy to define. Some perfumes focus on capturing the more tangible facets of ambergris scent profile, such as salty, marine, sweet, tobacco-like, earthy, or even dusty vanilla-paper facets. Often, perfumes with real ambergris have a funky, civet-like character that some compare to halitosis. As a rule of thumb, real ambergris is used mostly by natural perfumers, small indie perfumers, and attar makers. Beyond a certain price point, most of the attars and mukhallats described in the Attar Guide use real ambergris rather than synthetics.
What does ambergris smell like?
The sea. Salt. A harbor at low tide. Poo. Earth. Tobacco. Rocks. Musk. A freshly mucked-out stable. Vanilla milk. Old newspaper. Ambergris can smell like any and all of these things, depending on the grade (quality) of ambergris, the age of the piece, and the specific micro-environmental conditions surrounding its formation. Each piece of ambergris smells different from the next, but its aroma and quality are classified as one of three categories, as follows:
Black Ambergris: The freshest pieces of ambergris are blackish in color, quite soft, and dung-like. Fresh black ambergris smells quite strongly of horse manure mixed with straw and marine bilge. If you have ever mucked out a horse’s stable, then you will be familiar with this smell – it is pungent, fecal, but also warm and horsey. It is not unpleasant, but it is animalic. These lower grades of ambergris have not been cured as long in the ocean and therefore retain their original poo-like shape, color, and smell. While the very soft specimens are useless to perfumers, there is great demand in the Arab world for the harder lumps of ‘fresh’ ambergris, which produce a animalistic undertone in attars and blends.
Grey (Standard) Ambergris: Aged for a good many years in the ocean, grey ambergris has an ashy grey or brownish color, and is hard. The greatest range of aromas seems to be present within this grade of ambergris, with specimens smelling alternately of tobacco, old (yellowing) newspapers, vanilla, bad breath, marine silt, damp earth, harbors at low tide, seaweed, hay, horsehair, books, and warm salt. The initial aroma is warm, salty, and halitosis-like. Once the nose adjusts to the slight fecal or bad breath tonalities, the aroma is very pleasant – rich, round, and earthy, with an undercurrent of clean seawater.
White Ambergris: The highest grade of ambergris is, as the name suggests, white. There is little to no actual aroma clinging to the actual specimens besides a hint of sweet dust, dried salt, and something mineralic. In fact, white ambergris smells like anything that’s lain on a beach under the sun for a while, meaning dusty, mineralic, faded, and pleasantly ‘au plein air’. It has a silvery driftwood feel, bleached of all color and animal tendencies. It smells light, bright, clear, and kind of sweet. It is actually a very difficult smell to define other than a subtle salty-sweet ozone aroma that drifts in and out of the outer field of one’s perception. White ambergris is the type prized for its fixative abilities and for its power to magnify all the other notes without imposing its own character on the composition. Smelled on its own, it is a very difficult aroma for the human nose to define.
N.B. These descriptions come from personal experience with smelling many different specimens of beach-cast ambergris, kindly facilitated by face-to-face meetings with the owner of Celtic Ambergris in Kilkee, County Clare, in the West of Ireland.
Ambergris in Attar Perfumery
Oil perfumes on the cheaper end of the scale likely use the same Ambroxan or Cetalox used in most Western commercial perfumes. But the more expensive, luxurious mukhallats that list ambergris as a note will contain real ambergris. Culturally speaking, there is a long-held reverence in the Middle East for ambergris both in perfumery and for other, more obscure uses, like fattening up a thin child.
Cultural preferences also come into play when it comes to the selection and buying of pieces of ambergris. The Middle Eastern customer is much keener than the average Westerner on animalic notes in their perfumes, exhibiting a healthy appetite for the darker, funkier forms of ambergris, oud, and musks. Therefore, even the fresher specimens of ambergris are appreciated and used in Middle-Eastern perfumery.
Anyone interested in ambergris might want to order samples of some single-focus ambergris oils and tinctures, in order to establish a baseline for how ambergris smells in isolation. For a high-quality tincture, order a few drops from La Via de Profumo. Dominique Dubrana, or Abdes Salaam Attar as he is more commonly known, is a highly reputable and respected perfumer that makes and sells his own tinctures, attars, and spray perfumes using only natural ingredients.
Note: This article is an updated and attenuated version of an article originally written for Basenotes in 2019 (here). It is reprinted with the kind permission of Basenotes’ owner, Grant Osborne.
Photos: All photos in this post were taken by me and should therefore only be reproduced with my permission.
About Me: A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes. (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world). Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery. Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud. But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay. In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.
Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized. But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button. Thank you!
Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.