WHAT IS AMBERGRIS ?
Ambergris is like a UFO among sourced materials. Firstly, because it is one of the 6 materials of animal origin used in perfumery (with civet, musk, beeswax, castoreum and hyraceum). Secondly, because it is an intestinal concretion of a giant of the seas: the sperm whale or Physeter macrocephalus. A rare and invaluable substance, it is estimated that only 1% of the sperm whale population produces it. Following a defensive mechanism, they reject any foreign body harmful to their organism, in particular the beaks of cuttlefish which come to lodge in their intestine. In order to protect itself, the cetacean produces an agglomerate that it rejects in the sea. It is commonly referred to as “sperm whale vomit” from which ambergris gets its nickname. This animal material is very difficult to identify and to know where to find it requires a perfect knowledge of winds and tides as well as a developed sense of smell.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
It is a very fragrant material, solid, fatty and flammable. If it is commonly referred to as sperm whale vomit, it is primarily because specialists believe that ambergris is a puke of the animal. But some scientists have recently questioned this theory and consider that it comes from its excrement. Originally viscous and liquid, the mass fossilizes over time helped by the joint action of the sun and the sea.. Also, even if we find residues of amber in all the oceans, it is almost impossible to meet it in its liquid form. So the vast majority of the harvest is done on the coast, in the form of a block that looks like a simple pebble. You will need a perfect knowledge of the currents and tides, the movements of the cetacean, a good nose and success to hope to find it.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF AMBER
Each block is unique in its kind, as much for its size, its color, its composition as for the smell it gives off. It can be round or irregular, detached in the form of what is called “kidney” or complete, weighing a few grams as several hundred pounds, and especially have very different colors depending on its maturation. Commonly, ambergris is classified under 3 types of color: in order black, gray and white. Black is the freshest, the one that is closest to the fecal notes of the animal. It is therefore softer than the others. Conversely, the white amber is the hardest and tends to more saline and iodine notes. We easily recognize the contribution of the sea on this block. Finally, be careful not to confuse ambergris with amber plant which is a fossilized resin from trees.
A COMPLEX AND EVOLVING FRAGRANCE
Ambergris is a complex fragrance that intensifies with age. Just harvested, the block gives off strong scents of horse manure or dung. With time, it becomes more refined and releases rounder, more fragrant notes, quite close to tobacco (even if its animal character remains perfectly identifiable). Finally, an old piece that has drifted for a long time in the ocean has a very pronounced iodine smell. A single material for multiple facets, a real boon for perfumers who compose their creations with these singular notes. Despite these differences, the smell of ambergris keeps a guideline: the warm notes.
AMBERGRIS IN PERFUMERY
Its fragrance is persistent, it is found mainly in the base note. And any wise nose will tell you, it improves a composition by fixing the odors between them. It is called a fixative because it is composed of amber, a form of natural alcohol, which once extracted, allows to magnify and make the other fragrances last. It is even considered to bring an unequalled harmony to the different materials. Unfortunately, most of the natural ambergris has been replaced in perfumery by synthetic amber. For several reasons, financial first, but also because of its scarcity and therefore the difficulties of supply.
AMBERGRIS IN CHINESE MEDICINE
Long before becoming a flagship material of perfumery, ambergris was recognized and used by the greatest civilizations. In traditional Chinese medicine for example, it is known to treat respiratory diseases. It is used to treat asthma for over 2000 years.. For the record, the origin of ambergris has remained a mystery for centuries. Many theories were born, some considered that it was a resin, a variety of mushrooms, or even solidified foam, others saw a fruit, a gemstone and many others. In China, it was attributed a mystical origin from which it takes its name, the “dragon slime”.
ITS APHODISIAC PROPERTIES
The parenthesis made, ambergris has also been widely used for its aphrodisiac properties, as a pheromone, it acts on the hormonal system. This is particularly the case in the entire Arabian culture and especially in the Middle East. As such, it is said that ambergris was mixed with hot chocolate in European libertine circles in the eighteenth century. A drink symbol of eroticism that will be consumed by Marie Antoinette in person. Finally, we can note that the Egyptian civilization reduced to powder to use it as incense.
THE FANTASY OF AMBERGRIS
Who hasn’t dreamed of finding ambergris on the beaches he frequents one day? A vomit sold between 20,000 and 30,000 euros per kilo on the current market, it has enough to turn some heads. We no longer count the number of stories told by our media of Mr. Toulemonde fallen by chance on the precious sesame. Except that these articles, which are above all looking for clicks, are often intoxicating. It is actually very rare that the material found is really ambergris. And unless you know the field perfectly, and have “the ass bordered of noodle”, forgive us the expression, you have as much chance to find ambergris as to get the jackpot at Lotto.
THE HUNT FOR AMBER YES …
We regularly receive calls or emails from people who claim to be in possession of ambergris. In the vast majority of cases it is not the said material. It is now easy to confuse the material with many detritus that washes up on the beaches, whether natural or not: whether solidified animal fat, kerosene or oil. With each solicitation, the excitement of finding the precious jewel of perfumery is born. We participate with joy in this quest made of multiple twists and turns, rocky history and for many disappointment. But what counts is this treasure hunt that still keeps us in suspense as on the first day.
…BUT NOT THE WHALE HUNT
To finish on this subject, it is fundamental to specify that if it is a note of animal origin, in no case the sperm whale itself is disturbed, stimulated or worse, killed. L’idée c’est de récolter l’amas solide directement sur les côtes continentales. If this was not necessarily the case in the past, especially in the 20th century when the species was partly massacred, sperm whale hunting has been almost unanimously prohibited since 1982. Note that it is the spermaceti of the animal that was primarily sought, but these hunters took the opportunity to open the stomach to look for amber. Even if they rarely found any. It should also be noted that this amber was not the same interest since it is only after a long process of transformation following the common action of the elements that the material takes its full meaning.
TO KNOW ABOUT MATERIALS OF ANIMAL ORIGIN
The only other materials of animal origin that do not require nephast action for the species are beeswax and hyraceum (African stone). Any other material was excluded from perfumery practiced in Europe either because it was necessary to kill the animal or because it was necessary to excite it. This is the case of castoreum, civet or Tonkin musk for example.
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