Here at Hebe Botanicals we work with a lot of natural fragrances. The other day I was given a small thumb-sized sample of ambergris, a substance coveted for millennia for its scent and use in perfumery.
On poking a hot needle into the sample (the beachcomber’s test for ambergris) the surface immediately melts, leaving a sticky tarry residue on the needle. A brief puff of smoke carries with it the characteristic fragrance of ambergris, a mixture of sweetness and amber, musky with a hint of damp earth.
And, appropriately given its source, a distinct smell of the ocean. I find myself picking the sample up every so often to smell it again. There’s an allure about ambergris that’s hard to define.
And why would we want musky damp earth notes in a fragrance? Because a good perfume is not all gardenias and pretty flowers. There’s a deeper, darker, side to a good perfume – the base notes that give depth. Take them away and a perfume loses its warmth and balance.
The ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense. During the Black Death in Europe, it was believed that sweet-smelling ambergris could protect against the “bad air” of the plague.
Marie Antoinette wore an ambergris-based perfume, and Queen Victoria favoured Fleurs de Bulgarie, combining notes of Bulgarian rose and ambergris. It’s a perfume you can still buy today. Måori hung ambergris (mimiha) around the neck as a scent.
Despite being highly prized, for a long time ambergris remained enigmatic, a mysterious waxy substance that would occasionally wash up on a beach. Its origin was unknown, and frequently debated. In 1000AD Persian physician Avicenna proposed it came from underwater springs on the ocean floor. The Chinese simply described it as “dragon spittle fragrance”.
With the advent of commercial whaling in the 1700s its true origin was confirmed as the sperm whale. In Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick a chapter is devoted to discussing the harvesting of ambergris from a sperm whale.
Sperm whales feed on large quantities of squid. The indigestible squid beaks are normally rejected, but occasionally they enter the whale’s gastrointestinal tract.
In the long 300-metre journey through the intestines the hard beaks are covered in a protective secretion and compacted into a waxy solid. And, for an animal that can dive down 2000m to find squid, there’s a lot of pressure and compaction! The waxy mass is finally excreted as ambergris.
So while ambergris is sometimes referred to as whale vomit, whale poo is closer to the truth.
Fresh ambergris is a soft, black tarry mass that smells, not surprisingly, faecal. It’s composed predominantly of the chemical ambrein. Ironically ambrein itself is odourless, but it has high value as an outstanding perfume fixative. It is able to “fix” a scent on human skin, making any fragrance last much longer. It also has the property of enhancing fragrances, especially floral and citrus notes, giving them more impact. Little wonder ambergris has been such a sought-after ingredient in perfumery.
Floating on the surface of the ocean, ambergris is transformed by the action of air, sea and sun. The initial black tarry mass turns a light grey. Hence the name from Old French, ambre gris, or “grey amber”.
And the odourless ambrein is chemically transformed into a range of highly fragrant chemicals: Ambrinol, which has a musky woody smell, gamma-dihydroionone which has an earthy tobacco note, and gamma-coronal, which smells like the sea. Yes, there are chemicals that smell of the ocean. The oceanic perfumes (eg Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gioia) are in fact quite popular. After all, perfume is about emotion and most of us associate the beach, and the smell of the beach and sea, with good times.
Ambrein is also transformed into ambroxide, which is considered something of a wonder molecule in perfumery. A superb fixative it has the ability (to use the words of various fragrance houses) to make other fragrances shine and shimmer while rounding out the overall impact of a perfume. Its own characteristic subtle smell has been described as that of fresh skin with a silky sweet warmth.
Fragrance houses can be coy about the ingredients they use to protect their intellectual property but notable perfumes that are thought to have once used ambergris in their formulas include Old Spice, Miss Dior and Chanel No 5. Chanel No 5 is also reputed to have used civet (from the civet cat) and musk (from the musk deer). If true, that’s a lot of animal suffering in one small bottle!
Today many perfume ingredients, including most of the fragrant components found in ambergris, can be synthesised at relatively modest cost (though the cost of perfume hasn’t come down thanks to the overheads of celebrity endorsement and marketing, and profiteering). Synthetic ambroxide (trade names Ambroxan, Ambrox and Ambrofix) is in many of today’s fragrances, and can be made from sclareol found in clary sage. Fragrance houses can talk of a perfume having an ambergris note while ambergris itself is not actually in the perfume.
Most perfumers have stopped using natural ambergris. While much is made of lucky finds of beach ambergris (an 85kg lump found on a beach near Otara in 1928 was worth $850,000 in today’s money) the reality is that most ambergris for perfumery was obtained by hunting sperm whales, an endangered species now protected.
But what about using beach ambergris in fragrances? In the spirit of “money is the root of all evil”, no ambergris should be used in commercial perfumery. We need to honour our wonderful Kaikoura sperm whales. If we never use ambergris commercially then we lower the risk that they will ever again be seen as a commodity.
• Health scientist Dr Steve Humphries is a director at Hebe Botanicals in Ōtaki. He was previously a lecturer at Massey University and director of the Health Science Programme.