Marco Polo, in 1294, was the first Western chronicler to realize that ambergris came from the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus、which he saw hunted on Socotra.
They have a great deal of ambergris. [It] … comes from the stomach of the whale and it is a great object of trade. The people contrive to take the whales with barbed iron darts which, once they are fixed on the [whale’s] body, cannot come out again. A long cord is attached …to [a]buoy, which floats on the surface, so that when the whale dies they know where to find it.
Ambergris is a very strange substance indeed. It is found in the bellies of sickly whales, or washed up on the beach, but it is extremely difficult to track down. Its natural rarity has rendered it almost mythical and it still remains the most mysterious substance in perfumery. It is not often used by itself，as a solid perfume, but it is the finest fixative because it binds together the numerous raw materials that perfumes contain; it even works in the cheaper synthetic perfumes. But because it is so rare, and therefore so expensive, only a few private perfumers still use it. Some say it smells like a mixture of truffles, BO and good cigars, and certainly ambergris’ unique smell does not always appeal on its own. When its aroma is blended with other more fleeting scents, however, its particular properties fix those fugitive odours and makes them last far longer than they would without it.
At first ambergris has a pungent smell, but the weathering of months, even years, at sea matures it. When it reaches the perfumer’s laboratory, it is macerated in alcohol for several months and gradually develops a velvety, complex and powerful odour with remarkable tenacity. It can retain its scent for as long as three hundred years. It clings to materials even after they have been washed several times and the longer it lingers the sweeter the odour becomes. One single drop of ambergris tincture applied to paper and placed in a book will stay fragrant for forty years.
Trade in ambergris has been banned for years by treaty and by various national maritime protection acts but, except since 1973 in the United States, it is not illegal to gather ambergris that is washed up on beaches. Ambergris, or Physeter catodon, is derived from the sperm whale’s favourite diet of squid and the common cuttlefish and consists of 80 per cent ambrein, a cholesterol derivative. Jacques Cousteau discovered that sperm whales swallow squid in one gulp because the squid have soft flesh that does not require mastication. There is only one hard part to a squid: the beak. Ambrein may be either an indigestible component of the squid, or a secretion from the whale’s gut in response to the constant irritation caused by the squid’s sharp beak. Chemists believe that ambergris also contains benzoic ester, which is a compound of alcohol and acid radicals. (Aspirin is an ester.)
In addition to ambergris, sperm whales offer another treasure from their bodies: spermaceti – a milky-white substance found in the head of the whale and originally mistaken for sperm. Spermaceti forms – among other things – an exceptionally pure wax from which in 1748 Jacob Rodriguez Rivera invented the smokeless candle.
In the gut of the whale ambergris is a black, semi-viscous and foul-smelling liquid. However, on exposure to sunlight and air it quickly oxidizes and hardens into an aromatic, marbled, waxy pellucid substance in which the squid beaks are still imbedded. It is a greyish colour, hence its name, amber gris – French for grey – which distinguishes ambergris from amber, a resin that comes from the common rock-rose and from bee-balm. (Amber, also known as labdanum, is often substituted for ambergris. Compounds made from clary sage, oak moss and various fungi can be converted into ambergris-like odorants and ambreic smells can also be synthesized from chemicals, although with great difficulty because of the complex odour of ambergris.)
While the waxy quality of ambergris has given rise to the belief that it originated from gelatinous honeycombs that floated on the surface of the sea, ambergris is, literally, the vomit of the sperm whale. Once the ambergris, a paste-like secretion, has been regurgitated, or released during decomposition after the whale’s natural death, it refines itself naturally as it floats on the ocean currents until it is washed up on the beaches.
Sometimes, however, ambergris is taken straight from the whale when it has been harpooned. This is vividly described in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
He thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soup or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savoury withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash colour…the motion of a sperm whale’s flukes above water dispenses a perfume as when a musk-scented lady rustles her skirt in a warm parlour.
Ambergris was unknown in the Western world until one of Alexander the Great’s admirals collected it from the coasts of Oman (the conqueror was particularly fond of perfumes). The ancient Greeks believed that ambergris came from springs in or near the sea. They discovered that it enhanced the effects of alcohol if smelt while drinking wine, and no doubt many a bacchanal was enlivened by a pinch of ambergris. Pliny wrote that the Romans used pounded molluscs and cuttlefish in perfumery: these products of the sea are, of course, part of the sperm whale’s diet.
The ancient Chinese referred to ambergris as Lung sien hiang, which means dragons’ spittle perfume, because it was said to come from the drooling dormant dragons that lolled on the rocks by the sea. To the Chinese mandarins it was an elixir for the libido and in the Orient it is still widely used as an aphrodisiac. The Japanese are equally keen on what they call Kunsurano fuu, or whale droppings, as an aphrodisiac.
The Arabs call ambergris anbar, or amber, and they used it medicinally for the heart and brain. It is still administered to growing children in the way that the British used to give cod liver oil to make children healthy and strong. The Arabs, like the Greeks, also believed that raw ambergris emanated from springs near the sea and they trained camels to sniff it out.
Ali Ibn al-Mas’udi, a tenth-century historian and traveller, maintained that the best ambergris came from the Sea of Zing off the coast of eastern Africa; that it was pale blue; and that a lump was as big as an ostrich egg. He wrote that ‘When the sea is much agitated it casts up fragments of amber almost like lumps of rock and the fish swallowing these are choked thereby, and [it] floats on the surface. The men of Zing then come in their canoes and fall on the creature with harpoons, draw it ashore, cut it up and extract the ambergris.’
To the earliest Western chroniclers, ambergris was variously thought to come from the sperm of fishes or whales, from the droppings of mythical birds (probably because of the confusion over the squids’ beaks that were still buried in the stuff) or, due to its waxy appearance and mellifluous smell, from a hive of bees living by the sea. For centuries there was great confusion over the origins of ambergris.
In Pomet’s Compleat History of Drugs’ written in the seventeenth century, ambergris is classified as ‘the dearest and most valuable commodity in France’. Pomet poetically writes, ‘It is brought to us from Lisbon and is nothing else but a mass of honeycombs that fall from the rocks into the sea. These honeycombs being in the sea, whether by a property of the sea water or by the virtue of sunbeams, are rendered liquid and floating upon the water.’
It is mentioned in The Howard Household Books (1481-3), as ‘Imber-gres，，for its medicinal properties. Some authors have referred to it as ‘ambergrease，and considered it to be a vegetable of some kind, or a deep-sea mushroom torn up by tempestuous seas, because of its mushroom aroma. Dr Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, like Pomet, considered ambergris to be one of the noblest substances in perfume, describing it as, ‘A fragrant drug that melts almost like wax，. But he too struggled to define its origins.
In 1783 the botanist Joseph Banks gave a paper at the Royal Society by Dr Franz Xavier Schwediawer, a German physician living in London, which ended the confusion and showed that this mysterious wax-like substance the colour of ash was in fact a secretion found in the intestines of the sperm whale. In 1820 two French chemists, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaime Caventou, isolated, characterized and named ambrein as the principal active fragrant ingredient of ambergris.
Casanova liked to add small amounts of ambergris to chocolate mousses to aid his amorous adventures. Queen Elizabeth I was enamoured of ambergris and other scents from the East, especially scented gauntlets. She was reputed to have had the wood panelling in a dining room at Hampton Court doused with ambergris, where, apparently, the smell still lingers. Ibn Battuta, the great fourteenth-century Islamic traveller and writer, was
astonished to find men gobbling down hashish cakes laced with ambergris in Baghdad. Today it is sold in the souks of the Middle East, where men still eat it to stimulate their libido. In Morocco they drink an ambergris tisane and there was a time when ambergris was burnt as incense.