Initially it was called “amber” but confusion with the amber stone we still call amber led to the French changing its name to “ambergris” or gray amber because of its yellow-gray color (Word Origins).
You may know that ambergris is a substance that comes from whales, but do you know what it really is and why it’s used in perfume?
Often times we know that ingredients come from animals, but often the actual mechanics of how ingredients go from animal to your products is a bit of a mystery. Ambergris, a waxy, yellow substance that’s fragrant comes primarily from the intestines of sperm whales, though some think pygmy sperm whales may also make it.
Here’s a look at why it’s used in perfume and how it gets from the whale to the bottle.
Ambergris in Perfumes
Ambergris helps scents adhere to skin and slows fragrance's process of breaking down.
It’s been used for centuries medicinally and as incense, among other uses. But ambergris’ primary usage is as an adhering agent in perfumes (Washington Post
). Fragrances made with ambergris are widely considered the best. Ambergris helps scents to adhere to the skin and slows the breakdown of the fragrance, which is why it’s so often used.
Its scent is notoriously hard to describe. R. Clark explains, in The Origin of Ambergris
that it is: "Unique, illusive of precise description, the odour of ambergris has been said to suggest fine tobacco, the wood in old churches, sandalwood, the smell of the tide, fresh earth and fresh seaweed in the sun. I myself am reminded of brazil nuts."
But ambergris is illegal in U.S. perfume because the sperm whale is endangered. But in international markets, ambergris is very widely used and a pretty hot commodity. And at $20 per gram, finding ambergris that’s washed up on the beach can be a pretty lucrative find.
Ambergris Inside the Whale
Sperm whales are the only whale known to make ambergris, though some think pygmy sperm whales make it as well.
The process that forms it is thought to occur in only one percent of whales, explaining why it’s so rare. Ambergris is created when sperm whales have a throat or stomach irritant, primarily because they cannot digest squid and cuttlefish beaks (Bloomberg Business Week
It’s created when these beaks irritate the intestinal lining. They block the path of the intestine and feces build up behind them, causing the body to send more water to the intestines, and making the mass more solid and concrete so that (Floating Gold
). This process is repeated and the mass grows. Sometimes the whale can expel it, but other times it’s fatal.
While some refer to it as “whale vomit” there’s actually little known about which end of the whale ambergris comes from and it seems the back end is the more likely point of exit (National Geographic
). If the gut-blocking mass is fatal, then the theory is that the whale becomes food for other animals that inevitably results in intestines being ripped out and ambergris floating out and into the ocean.
Ambergris from Whale to Perfume
It takes time — sometimes years — for ambergris to become the fragrant substance used in perfumes.
It begins as a putrid-smell soft, black product that has an odor like feces. But becomes waxy, hardened, amber or gray, and fragrant when it’s exposed to the air, sun, and water (Concise Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
). Ambergris can float in the oceans for years after it enters the water, or it might wash up the next day on land where it must harden before developing its characteristic scent. It doesn’t necessarily need the ocean to obtain its scent. Ambergris taken directly from whale intestines will mature to something fragrant.
The scent-adhering properties have been attributed to the oxidation of the main constitute of ambergris, ambrein (which is somewhat like cholesterol). Ambrein doesn’t have a scent, so it’s thought that ambergris is the smell of the sperm whale. Copper, found in ambergris and likely coming from the hemocyanin in squid blood, is thought to be the catalyst for oxidation.
To go into perfume, ambergris is ground to a powder and dissolved in dilute alcohol (Encyclopedia Britannica
Ambergris is a greasy yellow substance that’s used in perfumes for its scent, ability to adhere fragrance to the body, and ability to slow the breakdown of a scent. It’s a product of the sperm whales’ digestion issues — coming from the whales’ inability to break down squid beaks. Much like wine, ambergris takes time to mature from a stinking, black substance to the pleasant smelling yellow substance that’s used in perfume.