Ambergris: The most fascinating / bizarre / expensive substance you’ve never heard of

AmbergrisQ. What costs up to $10,000 per pound, comes from the intestines of a sperm whale, and looks like an ordinary rock?

A. Why, ambergris, of course!

Ambergris is a waxy substance that is produced by whales when they’re having digestive troubles (likely after swallowing hard and pointy squid beaks). Supposedly, only about 1% of sperm whales can make it. After passing from the whale, it bobs in the ocean for decades and hardens, eventually washing up on a beach to be found by ambergris hunters or very, very lucky beachgoers. It is mostly used as an ingredient in perfumes, due to its unique scent and ability to affix scents to human skin.

Here are some descriptions of the scent of ambergris:

  • “It’s beyond comprehension how beautiful it is. It’s transformative. There’s a shimmering quality to it. It reflects light with its smell. It’s like an olfactory gemstone.” – Mandy Aftel, perfumer
  • “…reminiscent of tobacco, Brazil nuts, a fern copse, or the wood in old churches.” – Eric Spitznagel
  • “My brain swims. All at once, I smell: old cow dung; the lumps of wet, rotting wood that I have kicked along the beach; tobacco, drying seaweed…. And, beneath it all, something indescribably elemental. It is a mixture of the low and the high. The unavoidable and the unobtainable.” – Chris Kemp
  • “The problem with trying to describe the smell of ambergris is that it really only smells like ambergris.” – Chris Kemp

Well, heck, I really want to smell the stuff now!

Because of its rarity and desirability, ambergris is an extremely valuable, recession-proof commodity. These qualities also mean that its trade is shrouded in secrecy and controversy. In the United States, possessing ambergris has been illegal since 1973, because sperm whales are protected by the Endangered Species Act. International trade appears to be legal, and perfumeries in France will gladly buy up any supply they can find.

I just purchased this book on my Kindle and look forward to reading it. My one worry is that, after completing the book, I will be so fixated on the idea of smelling pure ambergris that I will have to quit my job and embark on a global quest to find it.

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