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Scent of a Woman: Ambergris & Other Fragrances

Posted on Apr 8, 2012 in finChin!, Science

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It weighed 983 lb and sold for a quarter of a million dollars– in 1883.

It was the biggest piece of ambergris on record. Ambergris, found in expensive perfumes, comes from sperm whales: it’s vomit thrown up all the way from its intestines.

Considering where it originates, it smells far worse than a diaper. After a few years in sea water, it magically transforms to a gift from heaven for perfume makers.

Ambergris: Vomit of the Gods


Ambergris (literally, grey amber) starts off as a slimy secretion in a sperm whale’s intestine. Its purpose: lubricate the digestive tract and stay regular. Most of it takes the normal digestive path and leaves the body.

However, some pieces of food simply get too big or contain sharp objects. So, the poor whale sends those chunks the other way: back to the stomach, back to the mouth. It eventually is vomited. Gross, you say. Yes, it literally smells like crap (since it is), and some of these lumps weigh hundreds of pounds.

The lumps of ambergris float around for years (or even decades) in the Indian Ocean (primarily), before they are washed up or found at sea. Jackpot!

By the time ambergris is discovered, sea water and sea organisms chemically transform it. Now, people (well, some people) find the slick grey lumps irresistible.

Ambergris: You Smell So Good…

ambergris perfume

Gold: $225 for a tablespoon

Ambergris has been used for hundreds of years by Middle-eastern, French and Italian perfume makers. The 15 ml (a tablespoon worth) bottle on the right retails for $225.

Perfumes containing ambergris hits all the three notes prized in a perfume: the top note, the initial burst that dissipates in minutes, the middle note whose job is to hide the less-than-pleasant parts of the base note and disappears in 30 minutes or so, and finally the base note that sticks around for hours and hours.

Ambergris does its job mainly in the middle and base notes. It is also a fixative that holds on to other fragrances in the perfume.

ambergris may be

Hermes & Creed products: They sell for $90-$140, cheaper than Gold above

Are there other better-known perfumes which contain ambergris? Eau des Merveilles line by Hermes uses ambergris. Probably, the Creed lines (Creed Vetiver 1948 was popularized by JFK).

What does it smell like? Fragrance experts (we used to think wine critics were pretentious) say it smells like sea and leather. Used equally in men’s and women’s colognes, eau de toilettes and parfums (at this price, we have to use French words).

Ambergris: Not the Only Game…

Then there’s musk (from the Sanskrit word muska, meaning testicles). Musk is a secretion from near the rectal area of a musk deer. All your musky after shaves, perfumes and the like probably have artificial imitators of musk.

Since getting a pound of musk will mean killing over a hundred deer, it’s banned in many places. The strongest of all fragrances, musk retails for about $2,000 an ounce, where it’s legal.

civetThere’s also civet. Civet is extracted from pouches near, you guessed it, the nether regions of the civet cat. It’s a must have in expensive fragrances. Civet, the experts say, has a sweaty, smoky smell: kinda like Bobby Flay at the grill.

Don’t forget castoreum, mostly for men. Castoreum is found within the skin folds of beavers. You need to dilute castoreum quite a bit, or it will stink like a sewer. Natural and synthetic castoreum is found in fragrances marketed as Asian. Supposedly smells spicy and smoky.

Ambergris: If That’s Not Enough…

Ambergris is sometimes found in markets in the Middle East: among food. Yes, some gourmands think ambergris is good eats.

Some swear ambergris is delicious in the eggs for breakfast. Some think it is great addition to a pudding, going all the way back to the 16th century. Oh, of course, it’s staple for the meat pie!

From Saudi Arabia to Iran it’s also an aphrodisiac and ambrosia.

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