Ambergris – floating gold

Ambergris is a rare and precious gift from the ocean. It is a waxy substance found floating on the sea or sometimes washed up on a beach. For hundreds of years it was a vital ingredient in producing perfumes; it is a natural fixative that ensures sweet fragrances linger long after they are dabbed to the skin. But it can be described another way: the indigestible parts of squid mixed with intestinal faeces excreted or vomited by sperm whales into the ocean.

Last week, a large slab of ambergris was found washed up on the beach at Morecambe, Lancashire. It is an usual discovery, but not unprecedented: last year, a young boy found a massive hunk of Ambergris on a beach in Dorset. Such a lucky discovery has been described as akin to finding gold but, in reality, it is much more valuable than that: the Lancashire lump is valued at up to £100,000 and the Dorset dollop at just over £39,000. Unsurprisingly, it has been labelled as ‘floating gold’, and it is literally a treasure for beach combers.

So what is ambergris? The Oxford Reference Encyclopaedia describes it as: “Musky, waxy solid formed in the intestine of a sperm whale. It is used in perfumes as a fixative for the scent.” No one would suspect an ultimate use in the perfume industry for fresh ambergris. When regurgitated or defecated, it retains a foul odour combining rotting fish and faeces. It is only after a lengthy aging process (taking ten to twenty years) that it acquires the sweet, musky smell that makes combining it with perfumes possible.

This was well described by last week’s finder. The BBC reported that: “Mr Wilman said: “When I picked it up and smelled it I put it back down again and I thought ‘urgh’. It has a musky smell, but the more you smell it the nicer the smell becomes.””

Its name comes from the French amber gris meaning grey amber which hints both at its exotic nature and its translucent properties. Although its smell is passable for perfumes, it is not the primary attraction. Ambergris is valuable because it is a natural fixative – it has properties that make a perfume linger, retaining its smell when scent is adhered to the skin. In case that makes you pause when reaching for your bottle of perfume, relax – synthetic chemical fixers are typically used today.

But what else can you do with exotic whale shit and puke? Eat it. Knowing its origin hardly whets the appetite, but its rarity ensured it had a place on the top table. It was reputedly an ingredient in King Charles II’s preferred meal: In The History of England, Lord Macaulay refers to ‘his favourite dish of eggs and ambergrease’.

It has also been used as incense in both Ancient Egypt and the Far East. Wikipedia suggests that it is still used in Egypt, but nowadays to flavour and scent cigarettes. Historic uses included medication as a relief for headaches, colds and even epilepsy and its strong smell was thought to ward off the toxic, noisome air that was presumed carried the Black Death.