A Whale of A Week!


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.

Whale_watching Australia WikipediaPhoto 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.

Ambergris ainslie

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.

Isocol ainslie

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!

14 thoughts on “A Whale of A Week!

  1. LOVING your ambergris story Ainslie and thanks for helping to clear up my confusion about the names of Amber & Ambergris.
    Portia xx


  2. Ainslie! Terrific little tretis. AND you have answered a question that’s bothered me for a long time, i.e.: what is the white sticky stuff that can gum up bottles of some of the old orientals?

    It’s very difficult to clean out and seems not to have any accord of its own. Whatever it has added to the frag is long dissipated and it has reverted to its original hard sticky configuration. Now – to find a harmless solvent that can clean these solids easily so the re-filtered fragrance can be returned to the original bottle unscathed.
    Any thoughts? Anyone?


  3. Thanks for the interesting story. I’ve heard a story from a person who found a small lump of ambergris on the beach that it smelt disgusting when it was wet. I’d love to smell the tincture though. 🙂


  4. Thanks so much for your post. I’ve been confused about this ingredient too so it definitely cleared it up. I must say, I’m glad they’re using the more fabricated version these days. While I love most natural oils,, I think I’m just fine with the manufactured variety of this ingredient 🙂


    • Ha ha! Incidently ambergris taken from a slaughtered whale, rather than found washed up long after one has died naturally, supposedly smells nothing alike…suppose it needs to “ripen” first. I looked into whether whales were ever killed just for ambergris, and seems not to have been….so then it’s just if you want “turd” on your skin!! ;D


  5. the amber accord is usually a combination of benzoin, cistus labdanum and vanilla… but of course the interesting ones have all kinds of variants to lean more toward one scent family or another.

    lovely post! now, if only we could find where all this aussie ambergris is stored…. 😉


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