A recent post on Facebook piqued our interest. Apparently the person was offered a few grams of ambergris. A robust discussion ensued on what it is, how much it is worth and what it is used for. For the benefit of the ignorant we decided to illuminate the subject with a few facts.
Is it whale poop or a valuable marine resource?
Well, both. Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. It is one of the most valuable raw materials in perfumery where it is used as a fixative to stick scent to human skin. Although artificial fixatives have become the norm, some high end perfumeries still use it as an ingredient in their perfumes. You can just imagine how many kugels are waltzing around right now covered in whale shit.
Currently, highest-quality ambergris is sold for $20,000 per kilogram. Compare that to gold’s price – $44,000 per kilo (Highest quality trading today). Earlier this year a guy and his dog found 2.7 kilograms of ambergris on a beach in Lancashire, UK. According the British newspaper The Daily Mirror, its value was about $150,000. Also this year, a lucky couple came across 4.25 kilograms of the stuff on a beach in Hermanus, South Africa. Early retirement beckons.
Traditionally referred to as whale vomit, modern research has indicated that it primarily forms in the whale’s intestines before it is excreted … so whale shit it is.
Know your ambergris
For top quality ambergris, ‘the piece’ has to float in the ocean for as long as possible (20 – 30 years).
Fresh ambergris is useless – jet black in color it has a pliable, sticky texture and a strong manure odour. It lightens with age, due to oxidization from the salt water in the ocean, and the odour becomes light, subtle and sweet (or so the experts say). Thus, the lighter the colour, the more valuable it becomes.
Some people believe it adds an extra dimension to food and drink. Mulled whale poop port or hot chocolate anyone?
According to an anecdote, King Charles the second of England enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs sprinkled with ambergris. Some modern day gourmands have followed suit. To quote one banana: “The result is strangely marvelous because the eggs are delicately but mysteriously perfumed, a little like vanilla in an alternate universe. For some reason eggs prepared this way don’t really go well with bacon, but toast is just fine.” Right you are buddy.
Historical, cultural and media references
Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt it is used for scenting cigarettes. Marlboro Whale Essence Light – now that’s catchy.
The ancient Chinese called it ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’. So there were people who not only knew dragons, but were also familiar with the aroma of their saliva?
During the reign of the bubonic plague in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris would prevent them from getting the plague. That one makes a lot of sense; obviously plague carriers would avoid a person reeking of foul smelling whale shit.
It has also been used as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments. ‘Other ailments’ included its use as an aphrodisiac – and, NO, that is not an excuse to exchange the extermination of rhinos for that of whales. They are both peasant myths.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a whole chapter is devoted to a discussion of ambergris, being a novel about a whale and all …
In the film, Hannibal, it is used by the villain, Hannibal Lecter, as a clue to entice FBI agent Clarice Starling to his whereabouts.
Where does the name come from?
It is called ambergris because it looks like fossilized resin (amber) and the ‘gris’ confirms its Latin roots, meaning ‘grey’.
Because ambergris can occasionally be found inside the digestive tracts of certain species of whale, it is banned in several countries as part of a more general ban on the hunting and exploitation of sperm whales. For example, it is illegal to use ambergris in perfumes in the U.S. because of the sperm whale’s endangered status. Wonder where Marilyn Monroe got her Chanel No. 5 from …
The fact is, and there are numerous reports to support it, the trade in ambergris is murky and very much underground. Therefore it is very difficult to determine if your expensive perfume’s ingredients washed up on shore or is the result of endangered species poaching. It is quite ironic when you consider all the bleeding hearts posting on social media about dogs, cats and rhinos. Meanwhile they wear their perfumes with impunity.
There you have it. If you ever come across a lumpy piece of fossilized whale crap while beach combing, you may just be in for that pay day you have always been dreaming about.