Ambergris was traditionally used as a fixative in perfumes.
Ambergris is a waxy substance that forms naturally in the intestines of sperm whales. The world is taken directly from Old English and is of French origin. In Old French, ambre is “amber”, while gris refers to the color gray. It is also sometimes called ambra grisea, ambergrease or ambergris and is very valuable. Humans have used ambergris for centuries, typically as a fixative in perfumes, although it has other uses as well. Pure ambergris can sometimes be found on sale, although it is more common as a product component, and it can also be washed periodically on beaches around the world.
Ambergris is found in the digestive tract of sperm whales.
When ambergris is fresh, it is almost black and very soft. It also has a strong odor, which some people do not find pleasant. After oxidizing and weathering in the ocean, sometimes over a period of years, ambergris turns into a hard gray to yellow mass with a sweet, earthy odor. In addition to being used in perfumes, hard masses of ambergris were also carved into jewelry, and the substance was also used as a spice, especially in Asia.
Whales are believed to secrete ambergris to protect their intestines from sharp objects such as squid beaks. As these objects enter the intestinal tract, they are covered in a layer of ambergris so that they move smoothly without damaging the delicate intestines of their lining. The main component of ambergris is ambrein, a fatty substance that can be isolated from ambergris through chemical treatment.
Ambergris lumps vary widely in size, with large specimens sometimes having chunks of other biological material inside, such as large bones of animals that the whale has eaten. These chunks were historically prized when they appear on shore or are found floating in the ocean. Whalers also collect ambergris directly by extracting it from the intestines of freshly killed whales.
Because ambergris is so valuable, some people refer to it as “floating gold” or “whale pearl”. It’s not as widely used in perfumes as it once was, thanks to the development of synthetics that can serve a similar function, but high-end perfumes continue to use it. As a fixative, it helps to delay the natural evaporation of perfume. It also lends a unique and distinctive scent that is an active component of the scent. Vintage brooches and beads carved from ambergris can also be found, often in museums.