Ambergris

Group: MUSK, AMBER, ANIMALIC SMELLS

Ambergris
Ambergris
Ambergris
Odor profile: Naturally a product of the intenstine of sperm whales, found floating on the ocean and blanched by sea and sun with a skin-like salty and warm effect. Synthetically recreated today.


Ambergris, which comes from some species of sperm whale, is one of the most valuable raw materials in perfumery. It's rare, and the fragrance it exudes is just as rare. In perfumes ambergris is used as a fixative and its presence can be best described as marine, animalic and sweet. Speaking of chemical content, the three major components isolated from ambergris are triterpene alcohol ambrein, the chief active ingredient, as well as epicoprostanol and coprostanone.

To impart further knowledge on the subject, we have Adrienne Beuse, to whom perfumer Mandy Aftel introduced me. The company  Adrienne runs with her husband is called Ambergis New Zealand Ltd (ambergris.co.nz). It was her husband who first became interested in ambergris and began collecting it for sale. With the expansion of internet businesses, they set up a trading business in 2004, looking for further opportunities to market the product.

Standard quality (Medium grade): a cross section of the interior of a piece
(photo from Ambergris NZ Ltd)

It was a learning opportunity to talk with Adrienne and the information she provided was commendable. We began with the texture and smell of fresh ambergris and its main categories.


Adrienne: Fresh ambergris. It is jet black in color (dark brown inside). It has a pliable, sticky texture (like wet soft clay). It has a strong manure odor, which most people would consider very unpleasant.  If you find fresh ambergris, it is better to throw it back into the sea as it's useless. We consider that there are basically three main categories of ambergris. (It is important to know this for an overall understanding of the product.) 
 


WHITE/GREY Ambergris  
- Product which has a white or partly white coating and a light interior color. Normally pieces of this type are smaller in size (they have been in the ocean longer). The fragrance will have at least some sweetness

STANDARD Ambergris 
- This product is normally brown/grey or ash in color. It will have a good fragrance but still a little strong. Pieces can be larger. You can often notice some layers in the material.

LOW QUALITY Black Ambergris - This type can be very hard, firm or soft.
 

The fragrance is normally quite rough, animalic, heavy and/or fecal. Is ambergris whale's vomit?


Adrienne: Ambergris has long been referred to as whale vomit. In earlier times, it was believed that the whale would vomit up this material from its stomach. However, research in modern times would suggest that it primarily forms in the whale's intestines and would be excreted from the animal (rather than being vomited out from the stomach). Despite this research, many people still refer to ambergris as whale vomit.
 

How many years does it take, on the minimum, for ambergris to mature and what age of the ambergris is considered best to be used in fragrances?  How is the age of ambergris estimated?


Adrienne: Ambergris can float in the ocean for many years. We could not say what is the ultimate amount of time for a piece to cure but normally it would be desirable for the piece to float in the ocean for as long as possible (20 - 30 years). We could not estimate the precise age of a piece, according to the appearance. However, we can tell from several factors (the thickness of the white exterior coating, the interior color of the piece and the fragrance) if it is an older and well-cured piece.
 

High quality: White Grey Ambergris (photo from Ambergris NZ Ltd)


As a piece floats in the ocean, a white coating will form on the outside (oxidization from the salt water). This white coating can be thin and patchy but it will become thicker if the piece stays in the ocean a long time. The piece will also become lighter in color on the inside, as it dries and cures. The fragrance will also become lighter and more refined. In general, lighter colored pieces have a lighter, sweeter fragrance and have been in the ocean for a longer time.
 

Is ambergris hard or is it brittle?


Adrienne: The texture of ambergris is normally hard. Only the lowest qualities have a soft (firm, pliable) texture. Pieces which are very old may become more brittle and powdery.
 

How will you describe the fragrance of ambergris and how to test for it?


Adrienne:  It is always difficult to accurately provide a description of the fragrance of ambergris. Every piece can be different and every person can react differently to the fragrance. There are several important points to note:

A) Quality - 
The word "ambergris" is used to denote all grades of the product; there is a wide variation in the quality of ambergris and the subsequent odor. The lowest quality ambergris is soft in texture and black in colour and typically has a strong "manure" odor. The fragrance would give the impression of being in a stable before it has been cleaned out. Many people would find this odor offensive. On the other hand, very high-quality pieces can have a very light, subtle and sweet odor which would be hardly noticeable, if you were to hold the raw piece directly to your nose. The difference in appearance and fragrance can be so great between these two extremes of quality that people would find it difficult to understand that the original source of the material is the same.
 

Lowest quality: Soft Black Ambergris above and Black Ambergris below
(photo from Ambergris NZ Ltd)


B) Personal Experience - 
The fragrance of ambergris is complex and this complexity adds to the very different impressions that people will have to the product. Even when testing the same piece (where there is no variation in quality), a quite opposite impression may be gained by different individuals. This difference will in part be due to the variation in olfactory sense of each individual, but the complexity of ambergris adds another dimension. The blend of notes in a given piece can provide a pleasing response and even evoke a pleasant memory or association for one person. For another, the same complex notes may bring a less pleasing result and evoke an unpleasant memory or sensation. An example would be where a piece had an earthy, mossy fragrance. This type of profile may appeal to someone who finds the odor of the damp forest floor after rain to be appealing but may signify simply an odor of " freshly turned soil" to another.
 

Testing for Ambergris


There is no test which members of the public can use to easily (and conclusively) know if they have genuine ambergris or not. Ambergris is a very specialized product and considerable experience is desirable with regard to accurate identification. While it may sometimes be found with a quite "typical" appearance, it can also appear in very unusual shapes, forms and colors, making identification difficult.

The hot needle test will provide some information. The important point to note is that ambergris (of any quality) will always melt to a glossy, dark-colored, thick liquid residue when a hot needle is applied. If heat is applied to any material and it does not melt to a liquid, then it could not be ambergris.

We also discussed its prices and safety precautions, and Adrienne told me that it is often confusing for people to find the right type. Prices also vary according to types but it is of high importance that the buyer can differentiate between the highest and lowest quality. Sometimes people end up buying the lowest type for a higher price. Currently, highest-quality ambergris is sold for $25 for a gram and $10 per gram for the lowest quality. About its safety, because it's from an animal source, the first safety precaution is to it keep away from animals. Direct heat will be another factor to its damage. The best way is to wrap ambergris in a cotton cloth and keep it in a drawer or cabinet.
 

Please visit Ambergis New Zealand Ltd  at www.ambergris.co.nz

 
Photos by Ambergris NZ Ltd (photographer: Frans Beuse), copyright of the photos is retained by Ambergris NZ Ltd

Photo of whale tale by kohane, Photo of whale eye by Photobotos.com




Author: Naheed Shoukat Ali (naheed)
Fragrantica Writer

 

 

 


 


 

 

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