Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ambergris


Charlie and I were just out for a normal walk on our local beach, with the dog, when he found this waxy-looking rock,” recounts Alex Naysmith, father of the 8-year-old (above), who is now roughly £40,000 ($65,000) richer for his curiosity. After they returned home from the local beach - Hengistbury Head in Bournemouth, U.K. - they googled it and realized it was a rare and valuable commodity: ambergris (definition and pronunciation here). Rare because it is excreted by only 1% of sperm whales while dining on squid and then bobs around the ocean for decades, circumstances American molecular biologist Christopher Kemp characterizes as “one unlikelihood piled on top of another.” Valuable because its scent can make all the difference when added to perfume. It is described as an animalic smell, as opposed to the citrusy or fruity scents of many fragrances, and is likened to a mixture of tobacco, rotting wood, and furniture polish. Ambergris is used in perfumes that sell for hundreds of dollars per ounce, including the classic Chanel No. 5, aromatic Scandal Pour Homme by Roja Dove, and historic Black Jade by Lubin. While the scent of ambergris can now be reproduced synthetically*, the authentic substance originates in the intestines of whales and is passed one of two ways, either through the mouth or the bowel and more often the latter. Kemp refers to "the popular misconception of ambergris as whale vomit. It’s poop.” But to the perfumer, it's "an olfactory gemstone.”

*It is illegal to use ambergris in perfumes in the U.S. because of the sperm whale's endangered status.
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