During the early stages of research for my forthcoming novel, The Last Romanov, I came across more than a few fascinating natural wonders, but none as mesmerizing as ambergris and its origin. Ambergris is a fatty substance sperm whales expel when they suffer indigestion, caused by hard-beaked squids that can be abrasive to the intestines and cause the poor animal massive tummy aches. At such times, the thunderous belching of whales can be heard miles away. Since no one has had the luck or misfortune of having witnessed a sperm whale in the throes of pain, the verdict is still out whether ambergris, which originates in the animal’s intestines, is vomit or excrement. What’s certain is that this rare substance, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, stinks when first expelled. So why is it so valuable?
Ambergris is like fine wine, certain Isfahan carpets, and a rare breed of men and women, who have the good fortune to age well. Once an excreted chunk of ambergris has had a chance to float in the seas and oceans, and be cured by air, sun and saltwater, its black color changes to a rich variegated gray and the foul smell to a tantalizing aroma that has encouraged many a myth.
The longer ambergris has a chance to age during its long journey across the seas, the more valuable it becomes. The Chinese call it “dragon spittle fragrance,” evoking images of perfumed dragons guarding troves of jewels. Throughout history, all the way back to ancient Egypt, ambergris has been used to cure anything from simple headaches to hysteria and impotence. And I use it in my novel, The Last Romanov, to cure hemophilia.
One of the forms ambergris is used today is as a valuable fixative in perfumes to enhance and prolong the scent. But nowadays, since ambergris is rare and expensive, most perfumeries prefer to add a chemical derivative which mimics the properties of ambergris.
Ambergris is found in gray rock-like lumps, washed up on tropical seashores. Although no longer consumed for medicinal purposes or as a spice as it once was in Ancient Egypt, and the East, or carried around to ward off the plague and other contagious diseases as it was during the Black Death in Europe, ambergris has not lost its mystique or value in the modern marketplace.
It remains a gift from the seas, its complex and aromatic scent described as sweet and earthy, powdery, animalistic, with notes of musk and marine.
If you are wondering if you have been wearing a perfume with this legendary ingredient, you may want to review your scent collection. Here are a few of some of the top ambergris containing perfumes: Givenchy Amarige, Chanel No. 5, and Gucci Guilty.