Post by Ainslie Walker
It’s whale-watching season here in Sydney. As they migrate past the Harbour, people line the shore to catch a glimpse. I visited the cliffs at the entrance to Sydney Harbour last week and saw some. Amazing creatures, and a very Sydney experience.
Photo Stolen Wikipedia
A Whale of A Week!
Also last week, I was lucky enough to smell a lump of ambergris. Ambergris is fecal matter (TURD) from sperm whales. It takes many years to form, lining the intestinal wall of the whale to protect it from the beaks of the squid it dines on. Debate surrounds how it is released from the whale -some say it’s vomit, some say it comes out the other end. Scientists say whale fecal matter is only fluids, so now it is believed the ambergris is only released when the animal dies, breaks down, or even explodes!! Lumps have been found from 15g to 420kg. The price for naturally found ambergris is extremely high, the odds of finding it, extremely small. Many countries ban the trade of ambergris as part of the ban on the hunting of whales- Australia of course is very strict-none is coming in and none is getting out!
Amber/Ambergris is a somewhat mysterious perfume ingredient. Is it a resin from a tree or is it really whale’s vomit/poop that’s been washed ashore? Is it a man made accord? I am curiously confused, and have had to investigate.
The word ‘amber’ was adopted into the English language in the 14th Century and referred to ‘grey amber’, now known as ‘ambergris’ (ambre gris). ‘Amber’ (Baltic/white/yellow amber) is fossilised tree resin, considered a gemstone, and appreciated for its colour and beauty since the stone ages. The term ‘amber’ was used to describe this substance in the early 15th century and was used more and more as ambergris use declined. Yellow amber and ambergris are both found washed up on beaches – ambergris floats, however, amber is too dense to float.
Ambergris is waxy, solid and flammable, and usually grey or black. When fresh it has a strong fecal odour. As it ages and oxidises, floating out to sea. I experienced a salty-fresh, dry marine blast, like sea rockpools, with animalic and fecal notes, something also very deep and earthy from the “lumps”. I then smelt from a bottle of ambergris tincture. It instantly reminded me of “Isocol” –isopropanol/rubbing alcohol, benzoin- but much deeper, earthy, smooth, cool and kind of ear-waxy,… still marine, dry, animalic and slightly fecal.
Ambergris’ main use in perfumery is as a ‘fixative’ – allowing the elusive perfume notes, and especially quick evaporating top notes, to linger longer.
Nowadays, it is uncommon for large product houses to use real ambergris in perfumes. (Hermes and Creed claim they still do). Synthetics became available in the 20th century that are cheaper and easier to acquire. Perfumers now make “amber accords” from combinations of vanillin (synthetic vanilla), labdanum, benzoin and styrax (liquid-amber tree resin).
In perfumery, ‘amber’ describes a warm, powdery, sweet and mysterious base note. Classed as ‘oriental perfumes’ in English, and in French, “parfums ambres”. Shalimar is the best example of this sweetened genre, a more bold take is Serge Luten’s Ambre Sultan with its bay leaf twist.
Ainslie Walker x
Further reading and exhibitions:
Book: Christopher Kemp’s Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris
Here’s a link to a (life size) whale photography exhibition currently on in Sydney. The exhibition is breathtaking, and really captures these incredible and rare creatures.
Side note: Dioressence was famous for using real ambergris in the past. Apparantly Hermes, Merveilles still contains it! Go have a smell!