Ambergris is a pathological secretion of the widespread spermwhale, Physeter macrocephalus, due seemingly to the irritation of the stomach by the beaks of squid and certain shellfish. The animal releases amber spontaneously.
Freshly expelled, amber generally has a dark blackish colour, a flabby consistency and a nauseating odour. Under the simultaneous action of sea water and the atmosphere, amber takes on a lighter and lighter tinge, silver-grey to golden yellow, and at last it becomes almost white. Its smell becomes refined, sweet, very pleasant and characteristic.
The bacterium "Spirillum recti physeteris" is thought responsible for the production of the pleasant odour principle of amber gris in the gut of the sperm whale. Sperm whales are notorious sufferers from colic and when they are basking on the surface quietly it is easy to hear great rumblings in their gut punctuated by monumental belches that can be heard at great distances over the sea.
Ambergris was known and considered as an imperial trade article in Africa as early as 1000 B.C. During the same period, the Chinese knew ambergris as "lung sien hiang" or "dragon's spittle fragrance", which was supposed to come from the spittle of sea dragons sleeping on sea rocks and drooling into the ocean.
Ambregris was well known to the ancient Egyptians who used it as incense.
In the 10th century Ibn Haukal, an Arab trader, classed it in value with gold and black slaves and referred to its reputed aphrodisiac properties.
Amber that had been badly kept was used, in the Near East and Rome, in perfume making; it also went into recipes of the pharmacopoeia. In Asia, ambre gris was employed as a spice in cooking. The Turks considered it the most pleasing offering to Allah to bring with them on their life pilgrimage to Mecca.
Note: do not confuse with yellow amber, the fossil resin of a tree living 40 millions years ago, and whose trade was flourishing in Antiquity.
The name comes from the Arabic "Anbar".
Historical records of ambergris lump discoveries:
- In 1883, sailors on the bark "Splendid" of Dunedin, New Zealand found a very large block of amber gris; it weighed 983 lb. and was worth $25,000.
- On December 24, 1908 a "boulder" of ambergris weighing 1003 lb., the largest ever found, was brought in by the whalers of Larvik in Norway.
- Another lump which weighed 926 lb. was found in the Antarctic by the whaling ship "Southern Harvester" in 1953.
- The Spanish whaling station Getares on the Falkland Islands found a whale with a 304 lb. lump of ambregris in 1927 that it sold to the Norwegians, owners of the only other whaling company in the Falklands, for Kr400,000, considered an outrageous price (high or low is not mentioned).
The Spermwhale that produces Amber is so called for the large amount of fine and valuable oil that is found behind its head (oil of spermaceti).
This animal was an enormous source of raw materials before the advent of chemical industry at the beginning of the century (oil, meat, fat, bones etc...) but was not hunted for the Ambergris because that substance is naturally regurgitated by the animal and floats on the oceanic streams to reach the beaches.
Amber, musky, warm, animal, sea, with a tobacco note. The main constituent of ambergris is the alcohol ambrein, which upon exposure to light and air, oxidizes to form, among other odoriferous products, very valuable amber and floral lactones, aldehydes, and ketones. Today, a percentage of ambergris has been replaced by synthetic products in the perfume industry.
USE IN PERFUME:
Used in trace amounts in perfumes, it serves, like musk or civet, for fixing and for exalting other delicate and evanescent fragrance notes. It is too expensive to be used in soaps. The perfumer Poucher defines several grades and types of ambergris and notes that it imparts a velvetiness to fine and expensive perfumes. It is a good fixative for floral scents and one drop on a piece of paper can last for months in the open.
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