Sperm whales subsist on a diet of squid, octopus and cuttle fish, all of which have small hard beaks. The beaks are commonly regurgitated but sometimes may work their way into the lining of the whale’s gut which then secretes a waxy substance to encase the beaks and protect the gut from irritation. Over time, the wax and the encased beaks harden into a lump called “ambergris” that is passed out along with fecal matter. It has also been suggested that lumps too large to pass out through the rectum are regurgitated as vomit, but this seems to be questionable.
By the time chemists get their hands on a sample, salt water and exposure to oxygen have triggered a number of reactions that transform the gooey mess into a harder, waxy substance that develops a characteristic smell, the exact nature of which depends on how long it has been floating in the ocean. Some liken this to the aging of wine. And as with wine, aging makes the ambergris more valuable. But why would a horrible smelling, waxy lump of whale excrement be so prized?
When appropriately diluted, the scent of ambergris becomes extremely pleasant and is much sought after by perfume makers. “There’s a shimmering quality to it,” gushes one perfumer, “it reflects light with its smell, it’s like an olfactory gemstone.” Perhaps the language is a bit too fragrant, but for perfumers ambergris does have gem-like qualities. Not only does it add a note that can bring a higher price, ambergris also acts as a fixative, allowing the smell of the perfume to linger longer.
Exactly how and when someone discovered that a piece of hellish-smelling glob found floating in the ocean or washed up on a beach can be the key to a heavenly scent has been lost to history. The ancient Chinese were apparently already knowledgeable about what they called “dragon’s spittle fragrance,” and Egyptians burned ambergris as incense. Unsurprisingly, it also made its way into various pharmacopeias as a treatment for ailments ranging from headaches and epilepsy to heart problems. When the Black death struck Europe, those who could afford to do so invested in ambergris, hoping its pleasant scent would ward off the smell of the bad air that was thought to be responsible for the disease. Ambergris was also claimed to increase virility and pump up a gentleman’s privates.
The key component of raw ambergris is ambrein, a compound that has almost no smell. Through reaction with oxygen as it bobs about the ocean, ambrein converts to ambrox and ambrinol, the major odour components of ambergris. Ambrox can be synthesized in the laboratory but the problem is that sclareol, the starting material for the most common synthesis, has to be extracted from the essential oil produced by the clary sage plant. While synthetic ambrox does provide a cheaper alternative to natural ambergris, it is still pricey. However, thanks to modern biotechnology, that problem is on the way to being solved. Researchers have managed to identify the genes in clary sage that code for the production of ambrox and have transferred them to E. coli bacteria that then dutifully crank out the desired compound. This may eventually provide a very economical route to synthetic ambergris scent.
Today, even perfumers who may use ambergris hesitate to promote its inclusion because of concerns that it may suggest exploitation of whales. While it is true that sperm whales were once heavily hunted for their oil and bones, ambergris is not the result of hunting. One perfume that does declare its use of ambergris is “Fleurs de Bulgarie” by Creed which was originally created in 1845 for Queen Victoria who reportedly wore it all the time. It is still available today for anyone desiring to smell like a queen.